Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The purpose of puffery and closed-mindedness


Two contrasting responses from America to my post Third rate music on Naxos' American classics?

Flinging merde - 'Granted some of the stuff that Naxos has packaged in that series has been less than distinguished but operating in a cultural establishment where critics treat every cow patty ever dropped by the likes of Alwyn (above) and Bax and Finzi and Michael Tippitt (sic) as if it were fois gras, Clements is hardly in a position to fling merde' - from Sequenza21, and I'm sure Norman Lebrecht would approve of that misspelling of Tippett.


The true beauty of the effort - 'Personally speaking I expect listener reaction to concert music is heavily dependent on emotional mood and cultural/historical context . The concept of "ratings" and "tiers" for composers is pretty much an over-rated specialization of critics, which serves the purpose of puffery and closed-mindedness.

My father is the American composer George Frederick McKay (photo below), who liked to say that "if the criticism of a composer's music gets to be really sharp, then he knows he is writing some good pieces." He also once got a big laugh from hearing concert goers in seats in front of him commenting in reverent tones that he was dead.

His music is really like a big layer-cake; in other words, in his young life, he composed jazz-infuenced pieces and romantic songs. Later, his music became more socially aware and radical-- "ultra-modern" toward the end of the 1930's at a time when he mentored John Cage in Seattle both encouraging the younger composer musically and inviting him to the family home for dinner and philosophical discussion.

Following this, my father launched into a loving involvement with American folk-music, and completely cast aside the "opus' system, which he considered a rather crazy European artifact. As to making critics of his music "cringe," he probably would have enjoyed this, since he had a mischievous and rugged nature derived from his upbringing in the West. His music is far from simple, and in many cases has deep religious and philosophical meaning. Much is yet to be revealed, since he composed nearly 1000 various works.


It is doubtful that any of us will ever get to hear high-level performances of all his works, since most conductors are still under the threat of being pummeled by Symphony Society grannies if they get too far afield from the standard concert fare. We have a commercial radio station in Seattle that broadcasts a full month of Mozart works, with one Mozart piece every hour, which gives me the urge to say "give me a break, guys!" Also noted is the absolute repetition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons by glamour-puss groups of all stripes.

So with this rather subjective outburst, I have implicated myself forever as an indivdually thinking patriotic, and maybe not so clever commentor. I should add that, although I loved Mozart's music in context to the movie "Amadeus," he never will or would have the chance to equal the magic of George Frederick McKay's interpretation of Native American themes that most likely stretch back 10,000 years in human history.

This is the true beauty of the effort John McLaughlin Williams has made to create wonderful recordings of the legendary music of America, that many have forgotten. My father's initiative in his mature years was to merge his music with the natural music of his homeland and speak of international peace'
- comment from Fred McKay on my Naxos American Classics post.

Any American readers who still think Michael Tippett is an English pastoralist should listen to my Future Radio programme on March 2 when I will be playing Tippett conducting his own Second Symphony; while this Tippett post with its world view brings this path full circle.
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29 comments:

violainvilnius said...

wouldn't have thought Tippett's triple concerto was very pastoral...

Pliable said...

A Child of Our Time, King Priam, The Ice Break, The Knot Garden, The Midsummer Marriage, The New Year, The Rose Lake, the String Quartets ...

JW said...

What would Ken Russell say of Tippett? Regarding the Double Concerto: "....ahhh, no MESSAGE..."

Pliable said...

Just think John, we could have had Richard Chamberlain cast as Michael Tippett rolling around on a railway carriage floor with Glenda Jackson.

violainvilnius said...

....as geriatrics anonymous or what?....

Pliable said...

Tchaikovsky was only 53 when he died. But on some other blogs that counts as geriatric.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Lovers

JW said...

"Just think John, we could have had Richard Chamberlain cast as Michael Tippett rolling around on a railway carriage floor with Glenda Jackson."

I am laughing so hard at that!

Pliable said...

Email received:

"Just think John, we could have had Richard Chamberlain cast as Michael Tippett rolling around on a railway carriage floor with Glenda Jackson."

The Tippett I knew (I met him a couple of times and exchanged correspondance), he would most likely have preferred Glen to Glenda.

As for pastoral, there are a few Tippett works : think of The Heart's Assurance.

Cheers

David Cavlovic

Pliable said...

That was precisely my point David.

Like MT Pyotr Ilyich preferred his Anton Chiluvsky to his Antonina Milyukova.

JW said...

Did I mention that I played in the premiere of Tippett's The Mask of TIme with the Boston Symphony Orchestra? Tippett was there, walking into Symphony Hall with faux non-chalance, along with a "friend" (Glen indeed), rocking shoes (moccasins or some such) without socks. Oh, the 80's!

Pliable said...

Nice Tippett photo here which resonates with that last comment -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2005/06/tippett-can-still-empty-concert-hall.html

sfmike said...

Fred McKay's letter was great and he made me want to check his father's music out on my next Amoeba (outrageously large music store in San Francisco) run.

rhapsody407 said...

old Billy Alwyn wrote some good stuff. Alas, the only British music one can count on to be played in the States is Elgar, and the occasional nod to RVW (always the Tallis variations). Which, normally, is more than what can be said of American music, except BSO is jumping through some of its 125th-anniversary commissions: Bolcom, Harbison, and Carter.

I also notice the comment over at Sequenza is gone. As one who surveyed the complete Louisville First Arts recordings, I would echo the comment that remains:

"the same could probably be said for the older Louisville Orchestra, CRI, and New World Recordings American classical music projects, but I am very thankful to all of these projects for — piecemeal — attempting to record, produce, and distribute a panorama of American classical music aspiration and achievement over about a 200 year period"

On the other hand, if Naxos is simply presenting so much music, leaving the judgement to the listeners, one must wonder why Naxos settled on the phrase "American Classics" as opposed to "American Music"? If it's anything like "Opera Classics" (from which Leos Janacek and Richard Strauss are conspicuously missing) we should expect similar unfortunate absences. (Some "worthy" Americans thus-far overlooked: Horatio Parker, Peter Mennin, William Kraft, Gardner Read, Paul Nordoff, and perhaps most glaringly, Harold Shapiro)

Henry Holland said...

'Personally speaking I expect listener reaction to concert music is heavily dependent on emotional mood and cultural/historical context.

No, it's using my 35+ years of experience as a music fanatic to decide whether the piece is worth my valuable time. I've listened to enough music in my life to be able to, if I'm paying attention, hear something once and know if I want to hear it again.

The concept of "ratings" and "tiers" for composers is pretty much an over-rated specialization of critics, which serves the purpose of puffery and closed-mindedness.

Or: for a composer who wrote 1,000 pieces, he was obviously going for quantity, not quality, so I'd appreciate someone sorting out the wheat from the chaff for me. For a self-selecting example, I can't stand the Donizetti operas I've heard at all, so I can infer from that past history the performance of one of his operas that hasn't been done in 150 years is not going to be sending me scrambling for my credit card, thus I can spend my time digging up more performances of Gruppen or Repons.

"if the criticism of a composer's music gets to be really sharp, then he knows he is writing some good pieces."

Or: you're writing crap, maybe it's time for a radical re-think of your approach.

in many cases has deep religious and philosophical meaning

Well, that loses me there completely, what else ya got? :-)

Poor Tippett, his stock really has fallen since his death, hasn't it? I seem to remember some critics predicting this when he died. A revival in 20 or so years then, the 125th anniversary of his birth is in 2030! :-) He doesn't seem to have any champions around, like Solti or Colin Davis were when he was alive.

Pliable said...

Richard Friedman has left a comment on the original post. It contains two important statements (my bold), so I'm repeating it here:

Yikes. Lord knows, the Brits have produced probably more 3rd and 4th rate composers than probably anyone else. (Oooo, am I going to get flamed.)

ALL composers need to have their music performed and recorded. Who judges whether or not they're 1st or 3rd rate without being able to hear them first?

This so-called first-ratedness involves a lot of PR as well as talent. Bach was considered 3rd rate until some 19thC composers rediscovered him (or so I've read).
(Is that PR or good marketing?)

In any case, if the world were to come to an end tomorrow and I had a choice between hearing some Beethoven, or Mahler, I'd rather choose something I'd never heard before. Surprise me!

Now I'm intrigued about G.F.McKay. I'll order the CD, and then I'll be the judge of that!

violainvilnius said...

so what does a composer need to do to get heard? Unlike that unfortunate fiddler who happens to fall on his Guadagnini, breaking it, just as he brings out a CD?

But there are also lots of pieces, recently rediscovered, which could have remained buried, eg some early Mozart, a Sperger viola concerto and so on....

Pliable said...

"So what does a composer need to do to get heard?

That question is the big one, it and prempts a post I was planning.

I view with increasing dismay the 'Oprah effect' in classical music whereby a select few gurus give their 'approval' to certain composers and musical genres, and that music gets heard as a result.

So endless Feldman and Nielsen is OK, but don't dare to admit McKay or Tippett is on your CD player, even though you may also love Feldman, Nielsen et al.

Richard Friedman had it right when he wrote ALL composers need to have their music performed and recorded.

Broadcasters, blogs and music writers now have frightening power. They need to be far more inclusive and far less judgemental in their use of that power. That is how more composers will get heard.

JW said...

I think Henry Holland completely misunderstands the composer's motivation when he wrote that "a composer who wrote 1,000 pieces, he was obviously going for quantity, not quality...". No composer aims to write so much; they write because they must. Ernst Toch once said "I do not write; I am written." A true , professional composer writes to satisfy an inner irresistible urge for purposes of self-expression, without mind toward the ideal of a masterwork. Any composer who says 'now I will write my magnum opus" is necessarily disappointed, as it cannot be done that way. In composition, absolute, undeniable, uncontroversial greatness is incidental, the confluence of training, means and material, inspiration and other things. Without saying who is or isn't absolutely great (how can we anyway?), we have been left so many gems by composers along with countless masterworks. Let's enjoy them all.

Henry Holland said...

I think Henry Holland completely misunderstands the composer's motivation when he wrote that "a composer who wrote 1,000 pieces, he was obviously going for quantity, not quality..."

No, I stand by my statement. Mr. McKay died at ca. age 70, so assuming that juvenalia is included in that total, that's more than 150 pieces a year on average--that's on top of his pedagogical commitments! I'm sorry, but *as a consumer*, I don't care in the slightest what the motivation is, there's simply no way that someone being a compositional assembly line like that can write consistently inspired music, which is why, contra Mr. McKay's relative, I would want someone who is in to "ratings" and "tiers" to advise me on what is really of worth in the ouvre.

JW said...

"...I would want someone who is in to "ratings" and "tiers" to advise me on what is really of worth in the ouvre." (sic)

It's fine to depend upon "ratings and tiers" if one feels short of time. However, this method is one of shortcut, and an indication that you, like many, consume music as mere entertainment. It is a perfectly fun and legitimate way to do so, but not a way that will produce deep knowledge of whatever subject is at hand. Tacitly, the former is your objective, but it is not mine. I'll wade through everything a composer of demonstrated talent has written - and be the richer for it.

Drew80 said...

Mr. Holland:

I doubt that you would enjoy any of the Naxos McKay discs, and I would not waste your time and money on them if I were you. I think you probably would be appalled by all three of them.

However, I bet you might enjoy all three Naxos George Rochberg discs: the Violin Concerto, the Second Symphony and the Fifth Symphony.

The Naxos recording of the Rochberg Violin Concerto is the original version, before Isaac Stern imposed severe cuts on the piece.

The Second Symphony is serial, and very, very beautiful. I think you would love it. I am told that George Szell admired the work.

The Fifth Symphony is mostly tonal, and also a very strong work. It was written for Solti and Chicago.

I suspect that you would find the three Rochberg discs to be very rewarding, while I think any of the McKay discs would cause you to grind your teeth.

Andrew

JW said...

To bring this full circle, it started because some believe that when one dislikes a piece of music, it is therefore necessarily third-rate in quality. This is a subjective conclusion that is demonstrably half-baked as such opinions are usually predicated upon nothing more than audition. Based upon that alone one can form conclusions as to whether the work appeals to you personally, but that's about all. Any definitive judgement of third-rate calls for a score and analysis, and is based upon more than mere opinion, which is what we're usually offered in place of considered analysis. So, it's ok not to like it, but that doesn't besmirch the composer's craft or intent. For example, I'm not a big Messiaen fan, but I know what makes him great, and being able to discern that helped me to interpret his music for a recording that won a Grammy. I still don't really like it, but he is certainly not third-rate. The score tells me that.

Fred McKay said...

George Frederick McKay composed a large number of works for many reasons---he was raised in a frontier family whose members actively played violin and piano for lovely dance music at country gatherings, so he was thrust immediately into the real romance of folk tunes; he loved poignant melodies throughout his life; his professors Sinding and Palmgren encouraged this lyrical path; and he spent 40 years teaching experiential composition classes at the University of Washington, where the students and teacher would try out each others' works.
One favorite McKay story concerns the performance of an avant-garde "electronic music" piece, during which a huge thunderclap sounded over the old music building. "God must be angry at our trespasses into modern music" was a remark heard in the classroom, or something to that effect. My father was generally up at 6 in the morning composing at the piano, and later would work more at the University, with refinements taking place there, or at his big writing desk at home.

One of his very early works which was very nearly lost---"An April Suite" was recently recorded by Bill Bolcom, after it was returned by one of my aunts after 70 years. My father had written this for her as kind of a "letter" to a kid sister in the old days. This piece has been described as a "gem" by Bolcom in correspondence to me, and it has recently been played several times on Swedish National Radio, as well as American NPR stations. Pleasingly, it has some nice blues inflections from the early 20th Century environment.

We listened to a great variety of recorded music at home, including Carmina Burana, pieces by De Falla and Ginastera, Bartok, Hindemith, Vaughn Williams and occasional works by my father's students Bolcom and Earl Robinson. He also subscribed to the big Louisville Symphony recording series which contain many modern works. In the 1930's and 1940's he had conducted several premieres of his works with the Seattle Symphony, and was involved both artistically and as a performer with the ensemble before it took on a more corporate nature in modern times. I must plead neutrality in terms of the absolute artistic judgement concerning his music, although several conductors of good musical background presented his music in the old days, including Leopold Stokowski, Sir Thomas Beecham, Howard Hanson and Arthur Benjamin.

If I were to recommend one bit of McKay music with real atmospheric quality, it would be the middle movement of Sinfonietta No. 4, which was somewhat of a surprise package that was unwrapped by John McLaughlin Williams and the Urkaine Symphony after 50 odd years in the dark. This music contains some wonderful sounds of nature and a romantic view of the Pacific Coast region.

One interesting episode from my father's career happened in the 1940's, when he invited Bartok to present a lecture and concert at the University of Washington. He had also invited Bartok to take up teaching at the Seattle campus as well, but Bartok apparently was to ill at this time to make that kind of committment. My father, during a reception asked Bartok if he would continue writing revolutionary music----Bartok turned to him and said---"my music is not revolutionary, it is evolutionary." At any rate the two composers had a mutual interest in composing music for children as well as serious modern works.

McKay also has several works based on classical period composers' music and he has published books on orchestration and harmony that reside in hundreds of university libraries. He also has written a book involving Beethoven's music, called Processes and Prototypes, which has never been published.

We recently had the McKay 100 year birthday celebrations in the Seattle area, with the peak being a couple of performances of his Violin Concerto by the Seattle Symphony with Richard Hickox conducting.

Just recently I have completed a memoir concerning my father called "McKay's Music: The Composer Chronicles----George Frederick McKay's Musical Trek Through the Landscape of 20th Century America." ISBN 0615165893

This book is somewhat unconventional, but has a nice bibliography, photos, letters and manuscripts illustrated; plus the first English translations of letters from Christian Sinding to McKay.

Finally, I have noticed that NAXOS has an 18th Century Classics Series now, so the old guys can have their glory back to the satisfaction of traditionalists.

Cheers!

Fred McKay

Henry Holland said...

Drew80, haven't seen you around the usual classical/opera blogosphere outposts recently, hope everything is well. You know my tastes, thanks for the Rochberg recommendation/McKay anti-recommendation. :-)

However, this method is one of shortcut, and an indication that you, like many, consume music as mere entertainment.

Pliable, sorry for cursing on your great blog, but bloody effing hell, JW, you are so wide of the mark, it's not even funny. Music is EVERYTHING to me, has been since I was 8 in 1968 and was blown away by hearing Cream and Hendrix, it's by a trillion light years the most important thing in my life apart from my Mom and Dad. Your stance is patently absurd, full stop:

We were presented with a virtually unknown composer who has 1,000 works to his credit, I stick up for the idea that having a source to sort through all that and make recommendations would be a good thing [VIZ: Mr. McKay's post while I was typing and proofreading this] and I'm suddenly the classical equivalent of a Hannah Montana/Spice Girls fan?

It is a perfectly fun and legitimate way to do so, but not a way that will produce deep knowledge of whatever subject is at hand.

And wading through 1,000 pieces, even if they were all available to hear, is worth the time and effort? And, again, that's a strawman: I simply don't need to hear another piece by Telemann, a favorite of classical radio programmers here in Los Angeles, because they all sound the same to me.

I don't know about you, but I work a non-music related job, I have maybe 3 hours a day during the week to listen to music, so I'm supposed to use that precious time to thoroughly investigating an obscure composer when I haven't even heard all of Walter Braunfels (composer of the glorious Die Vogel that they're doing here in Los Angeles next year) operas, for example? Priorities, man, priorities.

Tacitly, the former is your objective, but it is not mine.

Here's a hint: don't ascribe motivations to total strangers on the Internet without asking first, it makes you look foolish and shallow.

I'll wade through everything a composer of demonstrated talent has written - and be the richer for it.

Ah, the key word being "demonstrated". I have at least one recording of almost every note Franz Schreker wrote, and that's been worth it, but four of his operas are among my favorite pieces of music, so that wasn't a stretch. You know, I don't need to wade through all of Bach's cantata's to get the idea, having heard about 20 of them, in fact, in my view that would be a pitiful waste of *my* time, time better spent investigating composers similar to the late romantics (Schreker, Korngold, Szymanowski etc.), sorta serialists (Dutilleux, Lutoslawski), plink-plonk purveyors (Boulez, Birtwistle, Dillon, Feryneyhough), spectralists (Grisey, Murail, Saariaho) and verismo and late romantic opera styles that I enjoy.

JW said...

Though agreement isn't necessary, it's nice that we share enthusiasm for Braunfels and Schreker!

violainvilnius said...

JW comments about people who use 'ratings and tiers' use music mainly as an entertainment (this sounds a bit like Adorno's comment suggesting that if you enjoy a piece of music it must be bad).

Sorry, JW - first, what is wrong with listening to music as entertainment? Secondly many of us who have a non-musical day job, need to practice their dratted instruments at night, and who patronise all the concerts in the neighbourhood in between, are quite glad to get a tier or rating or two, from reasonably respected sources of course.

Even when it's an advertising blurb from Naxos (they do some wonderful, always mouthwatering podcasts with introductions to unusual pieces of music which of course they are just bringing out, but they are pieces you might overlook while looking at a printed catalogue). There is just so much music about...

In the last week or so I have listened to punk rock, Kraftwerk, the Who etc all in the name of my eventual music degree. It was very interesting indeed (I'm a total stranger to That Sort Of Music). This is also a pre-selection of music, not by a commercial body, but a university who I hope has no commercial interest.

How can anyone hope to choose music to listen to, either for interest, enjoyment (it's not forbidden to have an emotional response, is it?), or reasons of study given the vastness of the oeuvre available (and then some of us have to choose books to read, too...). And almost all those who listen to music pay for it, which helps to keep it alive....

JW said...

I didn't say listening to music as mere entertainment was bad, just that it precludes real acquaintance with a material that is patently intended as more than a diversion.

I love Kraftwerk, particularly Man-Machine and Autobahn. But it ain't Beethoven. Or Schreker.

interplayer said...

It is interesting to see that some Americans prefer Mahler over much of their own country's production, which is understandable just as well as vice versa. I would like to add that my father who was an avantgarde writer in Germany definitely had a predilection for American composers, not only Cage whom he admired but many more. I think he would have been interested in the work of McKay whose name I happen to hear for the first time in this debate. I will recall the case of Ruth Crawford-Seeger, for me one of the finest avantgarde composers of the first half of last century, with a similiar interest in avantgarde and folk. Should anybody be interested, I would also like to add that we had some interesting debates about the (cultural) relativity of judgement in the intercontinental composer's workshop "global interplay", see http://www.wnmf2006.de/index.php?PageID=29&lang=en

JW said...

An interesting footnote: Mahler performed Henry Hadley, specifically the rhapsody "The Culprit Fay". I'd say that given our knowledge of his notoriously high and unforgiving standards, Mahler thought pretty highly of Hadley.