What a musical work does

In the next few months, I’m planning to write a lot in response to The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap, easily my top recommended music book of this decade, originally released in 2013 but republished in paperback last month, and now available at a reasonable price worldwide.

I am broadly sympathetic with Borstlap’s central thesis: that we make a category error when we refer to atonal “sound art” as “music”, particularly when we try to stuff it in to the institutional framework of classical music. Borstlap claims in his introduction that he is not out to make a rigorous argument in defense of this thesis, but rather to write a series of examinations on this theme. In truth, he tries to have it both ways and some of his argumentation works while other times it falls down under scrutiny.

One thing that I think Borstlap is great at is defining his terms, and they are very basic terms that are so often taken as axiomatic. Like, for example, tonality:

Tonality is the relationship in terms of resonance that exists between separate tones, a relationship made possible by the physical phenomenon of overtones. In every tone, other tones softly resonate; above the fundamental tone these overtones are in the order of octave, fifth, again octave, third, again fifth and smaller intervals which spread out in an increasingly diffuse and faint range at the top.

This relationship is like a force of gravity which pulls a sound toward its fundamental tone. In a musical work, a fundamental tone could be compared to the vanishing point in figurative painting: it is the point to which all the lines of perspective and all the objects in the “virtual” space of the image are related, thus creating the effect of space in an otherwise flat surface.

In a comparable way, the fundamental tone is the focus of all the relationships that operate in a piece of music at a given moment, and since music moves in time and all the different tones move according to the parameters of melody, harmony, and rhythm, they continually shift their relationship toward the fundamental tone, in continuously varying degrees of distance and strength of connection, thus creating the effect of energies moving along between fixed, less fixed, and floating positions.

The result is what metaphorically could be called an “aural perspective” in which the force of tonality, with varying intensities, continuously focuses upon the fundamental tone: a “musical space” comparable to the quasi-physical space created by perspective in a figurative painting.

The gravitational force of tonality makes the scales – the basic materials of music – possible and the simultaneousness of different tones forming a coherent unity: harmony.

These differences of correspondence can create the impression of energies flowing from one type of intensity to another and can thus be used by the composer to create a musical narrative that gives the impression of movement, and thus a musical rhetoric is made possible.

What I especially like is that Borstlap’s definition of tonality is quite a broad one which basically includes all traditional musics and excludes only one thing: the recently contrived atonal sound art of the 20th and 21st centuries, in which composers must strenuously work to avoid the use of tonality.

Per Borstlap, Western equal-temperament is rightly considered one example of tonality, and he fully acknowledges that it is a human (and indeed a European) invention:

But the tone system of Western art music is not exactly the same as the interrelatedness of natural overtones: it is an adaptation, an artificial structure within which the natural interrelatedness – the tonal “gravity” – can function, binding tones together, but with enough flexibility to make all kinds of tonal complexity possible.

Tonality is not this equalized, flexible system in which the music can go in any direction, but is the “gravitational force” created by the relationships of octaves and fifths, gradually weaker in smaller intervals, a natural force operating within this human construct.

Using this definition of tonality, he begins to form his argument:

Tonality – the binding force created by nature – is a flexible and ambiguous force. It is a field of energy and not a “structure” or “system”, and when seen as such it will become clear that the idea of trying to create an art music without tonality is inherently absurd.

A form of music which is not organized on the basis of the “gravity force” of tonality is not music at all, but something else. It is indeed nothing less and nothing more than “sounds art” or “sonic art,” an art form typical of the last century and which does without the entire range of communication and expression that had been the normal territory of art music for ages.

In comparison to a past golden age of strongly expressive masterpieces, it is no surprise that even the “best” sonic art is not of much interest to people who love music.

Then he gets to the definition that I really love, about what exactly is a piece of music and what it does:

Sound as such is different from music because music transforms sound into emotional, psychical expression, it goes far beyond its physical presence, while sonic art stops there. This difference goes down to the heart of the concept of musicality itself: musicality is the capacity to understand what a musical work does, which is creating a mental space in which the musical energies move in forms, narratives, and flows, and which can be emotionally experienced by both the performing musician and the listener.

Forms, narratives, and flows. I just think that’s a brilliant choice of words. [Though, ironically, it could EASILY be the title of a new piece of atonal sonic art.] It succinctly sums up so much of music: forms like sonata, rondo, AABA; narratives like tone poems, heavy metal ballads, or ragas; and flows like minimalism, drumming patterns, or ragas.

And that’s the thing – most if not all music is some combination of the three. Certainly most Western art music combines forms, narratives, and flows. Look at the Pastoral symphony as an obvious example. Much of that piece is based off of the repetition of short melodies and motifs which can only be described as flows of musical energy; and yet, these flows are bound within the structure of a form and the form itself is at the service of a musical narrative.

Well that’s enough gushing about this book for now. You go read it, and while you’re doing that, I’ll get ready to tear apart the parts that I don’t like in my next post.

Bring on the Melody!

Here’s a tip: the next time you fly Delta, sit back and enjoy a viewing of Japan’s stunningly bizarre answer to Glee, Bring on the Melody:

When Chika discovers that the high school’s wind and brass band is set to be disbanded, she joins forces with her friend to recruit new members.

…but that doesn’t even start to cover it.

Chika is a belligerent high school freshman whose innermost dream is to play flute in a concert band, and over the course of the movie, she bullies eight of her fellow misfits into re-forming the school’s wind ensemble, which disbanded under mysterious circumstances at the end of last year. Her primary recruitment tools are handmade flyers and physical violence, but she also spends a lot of time running up to people and screaming in their faces.

She needs to find one player for each of the other band instruments: oboe, clarinet, saxophone, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and percussion. Her one guide is a group photo of last year’s band class which she uses she stalk each member one by one. (In point of fact, she snatched this photo from a fire with her bare hands, like, for real.) What makes her quest even more difficult is that she’s only got three weeks to round them up, because the school’s sadistic old principal has vowed to cancel the band class once and for all if she personally can not recruit nine members.

And so she sets about finding her Eight Samurai:

1. Her first recruit is an old childhood friend, a cute boy who plays the horn (and very well he does indeed. One of the interesting things about this movie is that it’s obvious the actors are all playing their own instruments, which is refreshing and welcome.) Now I don’t read Japanese (for shame, I know) but every time this boy’s picture appeared on the screen with some writing beside it, the words “Sexy Zone” appeared in quotes, and it turns out that in real life, he’s part of a Japanese boy band – wait for it – Sexy Zone.

2. Next come the trumpeter and oboist as a pair. They are a boy-girl couple, and they are the last functional remnant of last year’s band, tasked with burning all their school’s old sheet music (this is how Chika gets the group photo.)

3. Next comes the saxophonist, whom Chika seems to recognize as a kindred spirit when she first sees him beating the crap out of some random other kid. It turns out that he’s had to quit the baseball team and he’s taking it out on everyone else. Chika reveals that she had to quit the volleyball team and we get a surreal flashback that shows how she was uplifted in her time of trial by the dulcet tones of a high school concert band.

4. The tubist is a talented young girl who gave up her instrument because every time she practiced, it left her lips swollen to the point that she was slut-shamed by all her classmates. Her solution was to wear a surgical mask to school every day (not so uncommon in Japan!) In a show of solidarity, the other band kids also don surgical masks, under which they have smeared the most disturbing sanguinary lipstick since Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

5. Chika attempts to recruit the school’s star clarinetist, a virtuosa who has won several competitions, but it turns out she has lost hearing in one ear, so she’s defensive and hostile to Chika’s requests:

(Which I’m going to have temporary tattooed across my forehead the next time I attend a cocktail party.) Anyway, she doesn’t join and I can’t remember who they actually end up getting.

6. The last major addition to the group is the percussionist, and his backstory is one of the wildest bits of storytelling I’ve ever come across. It turns out that he dropped out of school last year because his grandfather died, and since quitting school, he has been running an unlicensed nursing home from which he broadcasts a late night radio advice show along with a panel of his elderly residents who answer listeners’ write-in questions.

The other kids share a firm consensus that their percussionist was the spiritual leader of the band and that without him, they will never be able to achieve musical cohesion. Luckily, the old fogies convince him to return to school and to the drums (which necessitates nary a bit of paperwork, administration, or even explanation; meanwhile, the fate of the nursing home’s residents is left a total mystery.)

OK, so that, plus some other unimportant characters, is our band. But the one character I’ve neglected to mention up until now is in many ways the film’s most perplexing: the conductor. (Isn’t it always?)

The conductor – who is also the official teacher of this class – has been absent during this entire recruitment process. All we know about him is that he won second place (!?) in an international conducting competition.

But that raises so many more questions than it answers, like, why is he doing nothing to help the recruitment efforts? If there is no band, does he still have a job? Would he just have to go and teach like driver’s ed or biology or something? Why would he instruct the kids to burn all their old music? What is he even doing all day if he doesn’t have a single member in his music classes??

I suppose none of that really matters since Chika was more than happy to do all the heavy lifting. But here’s the twist: after going to all that trouble to recruit a class of nine members, it turns out that CHIKA DOES NOT EVEN KNOW HOW TO PLAY THE GODDAMNED FLUTE!!

Just let that sink in for a second.

Now I’ll give this conductor one thing: he’s nothing if not consistent. Because once it’s revealed that Chika hasn’t mastered even the basics of her instrument, instead of, you know, teaching her, he just makes snide comments to her in the middle of class:

And it’s more outrageous than that, because it turns out that he is a frustrated composer and they are playing one of his pieces. And he specifically refuses to simplify her part for her. What an asshole. He’s written a big flute solo and foisted it upon this poor girl – without whom he would be unemployed – and he won’t just relent and give it to the clarinet.

Anyway, you can kind of game out the rest of the movie from here, but the specifics are amazing, especially some of the subtitle translations, like when the kids get in a big fight (filmed in one wide shot over the course of 5 minutes):

In sum, this movie is amazing and you’ve got to watch it, though I have no idea how you can do that outside of Japan or a Delta flight, but here’s the trailer. I’ve done my best to describe the plot, which is weird enough, but that’s only scratching the surface, because some of the sequences are as surreal as anything you’ll see in Eraserhead.

With that, all I have left to say is: BRING 👏 ON 👏 THE 👏 MELODY!!

Enter maestro

Picture it: Daniele Gatti’s first concert as music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the beginning of the second half, the maestro descends the famous Concertgebouw staircase, when suddenly a a renegade member of the public stands to accept the audience’s applause…

…leaving us with so very many questions:

Like, is he accepting the applause on the maestro’s behalf? Or does he feel that he has done something personally to merit this ovation? He looks authoritative as he stands facing the crowd, like he was expecting this moment and he is glad to rise to the occasion. Is there a chance he thinks Gatti is a latecomer for whom he needs to make room?

I suspect we shall never know.

As much as I am amused by this moment, it’s worth pointing out a couple other things in this vid:

1. As far as conductors are concerned, right now, it’s Gatti and everyone else. He has is the reigning master. He has total control of his body, hands, and face, and every motion is nuanced and specific.

And yet, it’s never too much, never more than the musicians need. He both “looks like the music” and is there to give the musicians the support they need. He’s that rare and magical combination of what players truly want from a conductor: he gives them feeling of playing with total freedom, while in reality he is leading them with command and control.

2. The RCO sits with the clarinets and bassoons reversed (i.e. clarinets to the conductor’s right, bassoons to the conductor’s left.)

I haven’t spent much time watching the RCO, so this immediately jumped out. I looked it up in the place one goes to look up such things and it turns out it’s a remnant of the split-violin seating (firsts on the left, seconds on the right), in which the cellos and basses sit to the conductor’s left. (I imagine it might also have something to do with the Concertgebouw’s huge staircase on the right.)

I really like this, because it then allows you to seat the horns to the bassoons’ left, with the 3rd and 4th horns sitting in the back row next to the trumpets. This solves a big problem, namely that you’re always looking for a way to get the horns seated so they are part of the woodwinds as well as the brass. It’s also nice to have them seated in two rows rather than having all four lined up together – it better reflects the historical conception of the horn section, in which composers wrote for two pairs of horns in 2 different keys.

3. For the inaugural program of a new music directorship, this is… just ok. I mean Orpheus is sort of a decent enough piece I guess, but wouldn’t you put a contemporary (Dutch) composer or a thrilling soloist on the concert?

Also: is Liszt having like, a moment right now? I feel like I’m Liszt tone poems on programs all over the place. Liszt is such a messy composer – he has some really brilliant pieces, some utterly fascinating failures, and then just a whole bunch of crap (have you listened to Hunnenschlacht lately?)

4. This is a strange interpretation of the Symphonie FantastiqueI’m not totally on board, but it’s interesting, and I give Gatti full points for doing something unique and fully communicating his vision for this piece to the orchestra.

Speaking of which, nota bene: the strings are playing the symphony from photocopied, comb-bound parts. I presume these are Gatti’s parts which he has had copied for the orchestra. That’s very unusual for a professional orchestra, that the players would accept bowings/markings that are “baked in” to the page (and thus not erasable.) This doubtless made the library staff’s lives much easier though, so kudos to Gatti!

A bit of the old Ludwig van

I just finished reading Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph and boy are my arms tired! And I actually mean that literally, that thing is like 1,000 pages and probably weighs over ten pounds.

This book was a joy to read from start to finish (which I wholeheartedly recommend you do!) and I came away with a veritable bevy of new insight and discoveries into the life, work, and personality of this man who seems by now so familiar.

Most enjoyable with a book like this is the chance to explore the unknown nooks and crannies of Beethoven’s musical output, both the justly and unjustly neglected. (It’s no secret that Beethoven had his share of clunkers, but when you’re the best composer who ever lived a lot is forgiven.)

But I love nothing more than exploring the pieces that barely even saw the light of day, the scraps, the odds & ends, the Werke ohne Opus, if you will. What follows is a curio cabinet of some of the musical curiosities that Mr. Swafford was so good to bring to light.

Beethoven wrote for the mandolin.

Early in his career he was trying wooing a young Lady Mandolinist and left much to show for it.

Beethoven wrote these SICK piano quartets at the age of FOURTEEN.

We all know that Beethoven’s dad wanted him to be a child virtuoso in the image of Mozart, but that the trajectory of young Ludwig’s career never tilted quite so steeply. But man for someone who was considered a lesser prodigy, these quartets are pretty solid!

(Interesting tidbit: due to Johannes van B’s habit of advertising Ludwig as younger than he really was, Ludwig remained confused about his actual age his entire life.)

Beethoven tried to write several operas; Leonore/Fidelio is the only one that made it to the stage.

What’s more, he wrote lots of random little arias and scenes and even a significant portion of a whole act. Mostly he just complained that the librettos he was being offered sucked.

Many of these smaller experiments were journeyman pieces that he wrote while studying Italian opera with Antonio Salieri. Some of them sound surprisingly Rossinian. Like seriously, would you guess that this was Beethoven?

What’s even weirder about this little trio (a standalone work) is that it was used as the concert opener at the second ever performance of the NINTH SYMPHONY. No “Survivor from Warsaw” for old Ludwig van B!

I think it’s a refreshing approach to a problem considered intractable by many conductors – the ninth seems to need a little something to fill out a full concert, but what in the world do you put in front of it? If you’re Beethoven, the answer is “Tremate, empi, tremate”.


Beethoven spent a surprisingly large amount of time arranging Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folk songs at the request of a random British music publisher named George Thomson. Calling it hackwork, I suppose, is not quite accurate, because Beethoven’s renderings of these little songs are quite sophisticated, much to the consternation of poor Mr. Thomson, who begged Beethoven to simplify the piano writing so that young highland lasses (Mr. Thomson’s target audience) would be able to accompany themselves at the piano from Beethoven’s music.

This project was drawn out over nearly a decade; Beethoven refused to simplify his music and the project nearly led Mr. Thomson’s into financial ruin.

Beethoven could be a real dick.

But you probably knew that already.

And he was forward thinking when it came to raising money for commissions.

But my favorite anecdote contained within the pages of this book took place at the end of Beethoven’s life. What you need to know is that Beethoven never learned to multiply, and scattered among the pages of manuscript paper he used to craft the most glorious works of art known to man are scribbled columns of sums in which he painstakingly added one number to itself x number of times.

The overwhelming impression left by Beethoven’s music is one of victory over struggle. You can hear it in every single bar. Emotional struggle, personal struggle, romantic struggle, heroic struggle, it’s all there, and it’s what each and every one of us experiences inside our innermost souls every single day.

So it’s a testament to the indomitability of Beethoven’s spirit that at the age of 56, lying upon his death bed, stricken with pneumonia, liver disease, alcohol withdrawal, and Heaven knows what else, he finally decided it was time to learn his multiplication tables.

Oh. And one more thing: he was deaf. [mic. drop.]

Program Elisabetta Brusa

My friend Chuck just turned me on to the Italian composer Elisabetta Brusa, born in 1954, a product of (and now producer for) the Milan Conservatory. Let’s just call her my latest obsession.

Her orchestral works are a) enjoyable, b) playable, and c) extremely programmable. For example, the above work is a response to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music. So here’s an idea for a late June program:

BRUSA Messidor – 12′
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”) – 30′

MENDELSSOHN Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 12′
SCHNITTKE (k)ein Sommernachtstraum – 12′
ALFVÉN Midsommarvaka – 14′

Or take her symphonic poem, Florestan, an ode to the pseudonym Schumann bestowed upon the fiery, voluble side of his personality:

BRUSA Florestan – 16′
SCHUMANN, CLARA Piano Concerto in A Minor – 24′

SCHUMANN, ROBERT Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) – 32′

Or perhaps her molto misterioso symphonic poem Merlin:

which would work great on a Halloween program with l’Aprenti sorcier and the Harry Potter suite.

I could imagine her Firelights on a piece with Stravinsky and Respighi:

BRUSA Firelights – 8′
CASELLA Violin Concerto – 32′

STRAVINSKY Fireworks – 5′
RESPIGHI Pini di Roma – 22′

She’s also got two kickass symphonies, the second of which is titled Nittemero, combining the Ancient Greek words for ‘night’ and ‘day’:

BOULANGER D’un matin de printemps – 5′
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 1 – 24′

BRUSA Nittemero Symphony – 29′

And there’s plenty more in her repertoire. A suite of short character pieces based on Italian fairy tales (Favole) that would pair nicely with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; a gorgeous overture-length “Wedding Song” with a great solo cello part which I could imagine on a program with Debussy’s Ibéria or, ooooh yeah, Torke’s “An Italian Straw Hat“; and a variety of other single movement works that could fit just about anywhere you’d like to put them.

Brusa also writes (in English!) coherently and interestingly about music and her own process. Here’s a great essay simply titled “Composing“.

OK conductors, I’ve just given you like five excellent ideas about how to incorporate this brilliant lady’s music into your programs, so please go develop, improve upon, and PROGRAM them, and thanks to Charles who is already doing so!