Music of the Future

I recently came across a particularly prescient observation by the renowned conductor, composer and music critic Donald Tovey (1875-1940). Writing some time prior to 1940, he speculates with remarkable foresight that it may become possible to produce orchestral music without orchestral instruments simply by reproducing the characteristic patterns left by a stylus in the grooves of a phonograph disk.

He says: “There is nothing to prevent the eventual production of music directly in terms of the track of the phonograph-needle. That is to say, the composer, untrammelled by the technique of instruments, will prescribe all producible timbres in whatever pitches and rhythms he pleases, and will have no more direct cooperation with the craftsman who models the phonographic wave-lines than the violinist has with Stradivarius.” (The Forms of Music p.141). He concludes, however, by reaffirming the preeminence of the natural human voice and instrumental timbres.

For some time now we have had the means to create music which reproduces the effect of orchestral instruments without the need for ‘live’ musicians other than to create the original samples, which can be manipulated in software. Phonograph disks may no longer be current technology, but the analysis of recorded sound has made it possible to quantify and reproduce instrumental timbres digitally with growing accuracy. As a consequence, it has become possible for composers to write music that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for live musicians to perform, but easily reproducible by digital means. To that extent, Tovey’s prediction has been realised.

Of course, “with freedom comes responsibility” (Nelson Mandela, 1995). Just because it may be possible to produce unfeasibly complex rhythms and unplayable extremes of pitch, it does not follow that this is necessarily a good idea. For most of its history, music has been a form of communication. In fact, there are analogies between music and verbal language. Consider this: “If the trumpet sounds an indistinct call, who will get ready for battle? In the same way, unless you with the tongue use speech that is easily understood, how will anyone know what is being said? You will, in fact, be speaking into the air.” (1 Corinthians 14:8,9 New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures rev 2013) Care needs to be taken that what is written still says something that is understandable, even though effort may be required.

Recent history has a lesson for us here. There was a time in the middle of the last century when Western art music was dominated by serial and related twelve-tone techniques derived from the work of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. The so-called ‘Darmstadt School’ of composers gained a reputation for polemic under the influential and uncompromising leadership of Pierre Boulez, contributing to a widespread perception that tonal music represented retrograde tendencies of less cultural and artistic value than the systems and styles favoured by Boulez and his colleagues. The complexities of ‘total serialism’ proved impenetrable to a significant proportion of the concert-going and music-consuming public, widening still further the divide between ‘serious’ music and the music people actually liked to listen to, which had been developing from at least the 1920’s.

We now have a globe-encircling musical culture which is overwhelmingly dominated by genres based fundamentally on nineteenth-century idioms, albeit combined with rhythm, melody and instrumental textures derived from heterogenous sources and making extensive use of modern technologies. The historiographical argument which appeared to drive the Darmstadters and their like would seem to have been comprehensively defeated. New musical languages may have value in themselves, but unless they are understandable by a music-consuming constituency, they will be short lived and sterile. Interestingly, serial methods do seem to have achieved some penetration into the wider musical consciousness of the general public, but largely as a means of extending the expressive capabilities of tonal idioms. As an example, the film-score composer Howard Shore made use of tone rows when writing the cues for a scene which needed to convey existential horror and a dissociative state (New Line Cinema’s production of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).

So what of the music of the future? Well, who knows? Current technology has made it possible for new music to reach an audience with unprecedented ease. It also enables exploration of unfamiliar genres and stimulates curiosity. The established funding models for music production are being overturned and re-written, which may be a good thing if it leads to greater democratisation of music. However, if it results in a reduction of the status of professional musicians to something resembling the eighteenth century model of indentured servants dependant on the patronage of the wealthy, that may not be so good. As has been the case throughout history, there is some wonderful new music being produced, a considerable quantity of mediocre music which provides a pleasingly decorative background to many people’s lives, and a vast quantity of derivative fast-food garbage intended to achieve nothing more than to relieve the undemanding of their cash. Do we need to worry about the music of the future? I doubt it! Music can look after itself. All we need to be concerned about is finding music we enjoy, which communicates to us, and which enriches our lives.

New ABRSM Piano and Clarinet Syllabi

The ABRSM have announced the release of a new piano syllabus, details available from Thursday, June 7th, 2018. The new clarinet syllabus can be downloaded here .

Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano – Carl Nielsen

The 2018-2021 ABRSM clarinet exam syllabus includes a noteworthy early work by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Born on the island of Funen in 1865 to a family of modest means, Nielsen became one of the most individual musical voices of the early twentieth century.

Carl Nielsen

Although he is best known outside Denmark for his cycle of six symphonies, Nielsen’s output was extensive and of the highest quality across the range of genres.

Towards the end of his life, Nielsen wrote a concerto for clarinet which has become a staple of the repertoire. The Fantasy Piece for Clarinet and Piano is the only other work he wrote featuring the clarinet, and comes at the beginning of Nielsen’s career as a composer. In this way, the clarinet frames his stylistic development.

The Fantasy Piece appears to have been written between 1881 and 1883, while the teenage Nielsen was a trombone and horn player in a military band in Odense.

Carl Nielsen in his mid-teens

The source consists of manuscript copies of the parts, originally attributed to the hand of the dedicatee, a certain ‘M. Hansen’ (possibly one of the clarinetists in the band), but now believed to be in Nielsen’s own hand. The style reflects Nielsen’s limited experience up to that point, and owes much to Niels Gade who later became one of Nielsen’s tutors at the Copenhagen Conservatory. Dynamic extremes in quick succession accord both with the high Romantic sound-world of the period and Nielsen’s tender youth at the time of composition. Musical ideas are handled well, with a competence and polish belying Nielsen’s limited formal musical education at that time, although there is little evidence of the distinctive character his music would later acquire.

The title ‘fantasy’ traditionally indicates a free composition – free in the sense that it is not required to conform to a set musical structure – and Nielsen emphasises this aspect by means of a motto inscribed beneath the dedication on the piano part of the source. This appears to be a quotation from a poem by Ludwig Uhland which was also used by Gade as a motto for his Opus 1 overture ‘Efterklange af Ossian’: “Formulae we leave behind us, Our art is poesy.” So it is with this piece; after an opening fanfare from the piano, a cantabile melody unfolds over four bars, which is then repeated with decoration and a four bar coda which modulates swiftly to a cadence in the relative major, before returning to g minor and repeating.

The second time bar leads into a simple cadenza (nothing more than a descending chromatic scale and an accelerando trill over the tonic), after which the piano begins the brief Allegro Agitato with fortissimo octaves in the left hand and tremolo chords in the right. The clarinet overlays the harmony with a repeated scalic figure before joining the piano for Beethovenian punctuation chords to conclude.

This is not high art, but competently crafted occasional music intended as a pleasing programme filler to showcase the clarinet. It is entertaining and satisfying to perform, both for the soloist and the accompanist, and is not without interest. Had Nielsen produced this during his time at the Conservatory, I suspect it would have merited a ‘good effort’, or its Danish equivalent, from Professor Gade!

Updates and Changes to the ABRSM Woodwind Syllabus

The ABRSM will be releasing details of their new woodwind syllabus on July 6. Details include refreshed repertoire for flute, oboe, clarinet, basoon, saxophone and recorders, and significant adjustments to the sight-reading and scale requirements. Among the new supporting publications, the Board will be including books of saxophone exam pieces for the first time. Further details can be found at http://gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/woodwind-exams/utm_source=Communicator&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Woodwind_CTA&utm_campaign=Changes+to+the+Woodwind+Syllabus&_ccCt=Z8GwJvrz1IGx82jmssMRed0itcxOu68O_zLLuac8YqVGAYEEUkI6svEslJpvcbZ_ Read the rest of this entry »

Dyslexia, Music and Exams – ABRSM Article

The ABRSM have recently added a very helpful and interesting article to their website, authored by Sally Daunt of the British Dyslexia Association. It can be found at http://gb.abrsm.org/en/about-abrsm/news-articles-and-comment/latest-news/article/dyslexia-music-and-exams/809/

The Vexed Question of Vibrato

Sooner or later, a clarinettist will begin to wonder about vibrato.

For almost all other wind instruments, the question of vibrato (“to be or not to be?”) is almost self-referential: of course one uses vibrato, it’s an essential attribute of the instrument’s tone colour. In some cases (hrrrrmsaxophone!), it plays a vital role in centring pitch. Why does vibrato become an issue for clarinettists?

F. G. Randall makes some interesting observations in his 1954 monograph ‘The Clarinet’. After stating that the clarinet’s greatest asset is its beauty of tone and power of expression, he comments on the need for caution in using vibrato. He states that vibrato “is quite unknown east of the Rhine”, but “had a passing vogue in France”. He then advises great care and discretion in using vibrato on the clarinet, suggesting that it is ” more suited to wind instruments of a tenuous or stringy tone, the flute or oboe, than to the clarinet with its complex and highly charged harmonic texture”. [Rendall, F. G. The Clarinet. Ernest Benn, 3rd edn. 1971 rev. Bates, P. pp. 39,40]

The great British clarinettist Jack Brymer broadly supports this view, and joins Rendall to a degree in deploring excessive and inappropriate use of a jazz-style vibrato. However, he relates a reminiscence of Brahms’ favoured clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld attributed to a “very old” viola-player who had occasionally been called upon by Joachim to play in his quartet, including performances of the Brahms Quintet with Mühlfeld. He describes the legendary clarinettist as having a fiery technique with a warm tone and a “big vibrato … much more than Joachim, and as much as the cellist”. [Brymer, J. Clarinet. McDonald and Jane’s, 1976. pp. 204-7]

Further, Eric Hoeprich comments on a recording of Charles Draper playing the quintet in 1917 in which “both the clarinettist and the strings make liberal use of vibrato”. Mühlfeld is reported to have commented favourably on a performance of Draper’s that he heard at that time, although that does not necessarily indicate any similarity in style of playing. He also claims that vibrato was “virtually never heard in Germany”, but was an accepted feature of clarinet playing in France and England. [Hoeprich, E. The Clarinet. Yale University Press, 2008. pp. 234-5]

Use of vibrato in Britain certainly seems to be accepted among clarinettists today, even if still viewed by some as controversial and by no means universally employed. Given the documentary evidence of Draper’s vibrato in 1917 and the anecdotal evidence of Mühlfeld’s playing style, it would seem possible to infer that vibrato was in more common use at the turn of the century than among the subsequent generation of clarinettists.

If this was the case, Reginald Kell was a notable exception. Kell studied clarinet at the Royal Academy from 1929 to 1932, developing an expressive use of vibrato inspired in part by the lyrical playing of celebrated oboist Leon Goossens. When recounting an occasion when none other than Fürtwängler complimented him on his playing, Kell describes his surprise in view of the fact that he was accustomed to being criticised for his vibrato instead of commended. After a successful career as principal clarinet of the Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras, he moved to America where he received a mixed reception. Colin Lawson explains it thus: “The American clarinetist Robert Willaman (1954) gives some idea why; he described vibrato as originating on the saxophone in dance bands around 1920, as a palliative for crude tone production. “It may be that vibrato is a real improvement. Some people put sugar on ice cream. A great many do not and never will” (p. 246).” [Lawson, C. The British clarinet school: Legacy and legend. AEC, 2011]

Both Jack Brymer and another great British clarinetist Gevase de Peyer were greatly influenced by Kell and incorporated a warm, controlled vibrato into their style as a natural matter of course. For the most part, the issue of whether to use vibrato or not should be dictated by the requirements of the music and the interpretation of the performer. It should be neither omnipresent as a mannerism or consciously excluded as a matter of principle; as with other wind instruments, vibrato should be a matter of taste and choice.

Perhaps part of the problem experienced by some has to do with the difficulty of producing a controlled vibrato on the clarinet. The method used by saxophone players of pulsing the embouchure is also used by jazz clarinettists, and is simply too coarse an effect for many classical applications. To be preferred is the diaphragm vibrato, essentially similar to the technique used by singers. This is also the method used by flautists, but while it is straightforward enough when using the voice or an edge-blown wind instrument with little resistance, the clarinet is a different matter altogether. It takes considerable practise to master the subtle control and delicacy of a diaphragm vibrato on the clarinet, and I know of no easy way to teach it apart from cultivating it with the voice first. I remember my teacher answering my questions about vibrato by explaining the two techniques, describing the diaphragm vibrato as the preferable method, and encouraging me to leave well alone!

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

Consider this question: do you like classical music, or popular?

Now, think: what is wrong with this question?

For a start, it makes an assumption that ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ (or ‘pop’) are two separate musical genres, as if popularity in itself were a defining characteristic and that ‘classical’ music is by definition not popular. In addition, what is meant by the term ‘classical?’ According to Grove Music Online1, ‘classical’ music without further qualification most commonly refers to the Viennese idiom identified with the work of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Of course, the popular classical music radio station Classic FM (are you following this?) doesn’t restrict itself to just those three composers. In fact, judging by it’s playlist, Classic FM defines ‘classical’ music as anything from plainchant to the latest movie soundtracks.

The definition of ‘classical’ music has been fluid for a long time, and is still a subject of debate. In his book ‘The Rest Is Noise,’ New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross spends even less time than I have done above attempting to define the term. Instead, he launches into an exhilarating review of major trends and developments in music from the start of the twentieth century. It quickly becomes evident that Ross is talking about music as art rather than music as entertainment. To a certain extent, his book is about unpopular, non-classical music – the revolutionary sounds of Schoenberg and Boulez and Harrison Birtwhistle. However, by placing this music in its socio-political context, the author endeavours to re-connect it to the people. Starting with Richard Strauss’ opera ‘Salome’, and ending with John Adams’ ‘Nixon in China’, Ross unashamedly cherry-picks his personal selection of key musical moments and uses them to define trends in twentieth-century music for the informed but non-expert reader.

Arnold Schoenberg turning his back on music audiences

The result is an engagingly coherent narrative. In particular, Ross explores the origins of a disconnect between audience and composer in the early twentieth-century, and identifies causes and motivations. The chapters in which he deals with the Darmstadt set and total serialism are cleverly linked with a discussion of the role of Messaien in America and the rise of minimalism. Again, by connecting developments in music in Europe and America with the cultural and social events of the time, he advances the thesis that even the extremes of Boulez and Reich can be seen as products of their environment. I particularly like his suggestion that the reaction against tonality in Europe in the 1950’s reflected revulsion and rejection of the horrors experienced during the second world war, and that America having suffered less immediately , the reaction there was less extreme and tonality could return without the same historical and political baggage.

At the core of his work are three chapters which focus on music between 1933 and 1945 under extreme political conditions: the Russia of Stalin, the United States of Roosevelt, and the Germany of Hitler. Utterly fascinating. In addition, Ross includes chapters on Benjamin Britten and Sibelius, along with material on numerous other composers of significance as they pass through the narrative. Stravinsky is discussed at some length, of course, although some may be surprised at the episodic nature of the discussion. However, in the context of developments in twentieth-century music, this treatment of Stravinsky seems appropriate, given his long composing lifespan and the chameleon character of his oeuvre.

In addition to the book, there is an excellent accompanying website  (available without purchasing the book), which includes relevant excerpts of most of the works referred to, along with links and references to further information. This is an outstanding resource, and one of the best examples of it’s type.

‘The Rest Is Noise’ provides a way in to the seemingly impenetrable complexities of Western art music in the twentieth-century with style and enthusiasm. I like this book. Buy it, read it and listen.

1. Heartz, Daniel and Brown, Bruce Alan. “Classical.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 30 Mar. 2013..

ABRSM Piano Grade 1 Scales and Broken Chords

For the benefit of piano students preparing for the ABRSM Grade 1 examination, I have typed out all the scales and broken chords in full with fingering. Please ABRSM Grade 1 Piano Scales and Broken Chords, which is in .pdf format. If you do not have a suitable file viewer, you can download Adobe Acrobat here free of charge.

Lang Lang at the Roundhouse

I’ve just watched the BBC Four broadcast of Lang Lang’s Liszt recital at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, July 2011. Featuring a combination of crowd-pleasing favourites (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15), sentimental showpieces (Un sospiro) and Liszt arrangements of works by Schumann and Schubert, the pianist emerged from (and sometimes disappeared into) a cloud of dry ice, lit in primary colours and with a bewildering kaleidoscope of images displayed on massive screens downstage.

The performance was part of the 2011 iTunes festival, and Lang Lang was the only classical artist alongside luminaries from the pop and rock scene such as Coldplay and Adele. The Roundhouse is a converted railway engine shed, and has been used as a performance venue on and off since 1964. Although in more recent years it has started to host concerts of contemporary classical music, it is best known as a centre for avant-garde performing arts productions and popular music festivals.

Lang Lang has gained a reputation for flamboyant showmanship, both in the staging of his performances and his interpretation of the repertoire. His extrovert style has lead to critics renaming him “Bang Bang” and calling him “the J-Lo of the piano.” Reviews describe his playing as “vulgar and self-indulgent.” The Roundhouse performance will have done little to change that view. Yes, he dresses like a rock star, not a classical musician. Yes, his hand gestures could be considered “self-indulgent.” Yes, the staging was more typical of a pop concert. I suppose the whole thing could be regarded as more than a little vulgar.

It’s interesting, then, that Liszt was chosen as the subject of this recital. Liszt, in his early years, was a flamboyant, showy performer. He dressed extravagantly, and lived the hedonistic, self-indulgent life of a nineteenth century celebrity. After Paganini, Liszt was the first true celebrity performer. He is credited with inventing the piano recital, and along with the demon violinist himself was among the first musicians to transcend the music and become an object of adulation with wealth and independence that Mozart could only dream of. The celebrity phenomenon we recognise in popular music today is a more or less direct descendant of the performance tradition established by Liszt.

I also find it interesting that Lang Lang programmed Consolation No. 2 in E major, a relatively easy piece, yet wonderfully expressive and characteristic of Liszt’s high romantic style. This suggests that the recital was about more than piano pyrotechnics and mawkish sentiment. Lang Lang may be of the “vulgar herd” (attributed to Thomas Gaisford, about the benefits of a classical education in securing a well-paying job!), but is that so bad? Like Liszt, Lang Lang’s father was a humble musician from a relatively poor provincial background. If Lang Lang revels in his popular success, why shouldn’t he? I enjoyed his performance for all the right reasons: his interpretation engaged me, his performance skills astounded me, and his showmanship drew me in further. If this style of recital helps others of the vulgus (Latin: ‘common people’) appreciate the great tradition of Western art music, I can only see that as a good thing. Unless, of course, one considers oneself above the vulgar herd . . .

Daily Telegraph report on the value of music education

The Daily Telegraph published this article on June 20th, in which it reports on efforts to implement a music education scheme based on ‘El Sistema’ in Venezuela. 

It states that there is clear evidence of the “cognitive, behavioural, emotional, therapeutic and social benefits” of music education, and further comments on the value of discipline and focused practice. The writer speaks of an “Amadeus mythology . . . in which musical talent is thought to be a divine gift to a few favoured souls,” and criticises the perception of classical music as an elitist, middle-class activity.