‘Musical’ as an adjective

I remember when I did the ABRSM exams, and when reading an assessment of an old school friend (who is now a professional Clarinettist), one word that described a performance seemed exceptionally odd. That word is: musical. Sometimes musical performances are said to be ‘musical’. When I was younger that confused me. I would think to myself: surely all performances are musical, isn’t that a trivial description?

 

In more recent times I am starting to get an understanding of it, is a term of distinction. I’m reminded of people like WH Dray or RG Collingwood, who had the view that having an historical understanding meant really immersing yourself in the period of something. Perhaps people love period dramas because of the way that a certain zeitgeist or je ne sais quoi (literally ‘I don’t know what’), captures a period of history or culture. I laugh for example when I hear ragtime music being played in cowboy movies. Ragtime came about 15-30 years later from the old west periods that are usually the mid-late 19th Century. It’s like playing dubstep in a period drama set in the Thatcher Years.

 

A musical performance can have an appreciation of its period. Although not necessarily. My late piano teacher used to teach me that a piece of music should be treated as an internal unity, with its own spirit. You look at a piece of music and you see it as a living being, what you express is how you perceive that living being, and naturally people will have their own interpretations. I would often conflict with him about this, saying that period sensitivity and context were the crucial factor to interpretation, and not some inward-looking insight. What is the answer to this? Well that’s constantly an ongoing question when it comes to interpreting certain pieces of music.

 

Glenn Gould is often said to be an exemplar of one and both of these views to musical interpretation. Gould often spake of the importance of period and is said to be a fine interpreter of Baroque period pieces and the selected 20th century composers such as the Second Viennese camp, Paul Hindemith or Richard Strauss. On the other hand, many of his choices when performing pieces are not of the musical text. I have a bad habit of stealing a few of Glenn Gould’s quirks when sight reading the Well-Tempered Clavier, slightly adjusting speeds. In a recording of Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Sonata (No. 14 k. 467), Gould’s playing is notoriously off piste (perhaps the best way of describing bad performing for a pianist who is vastly superior to me), and perhaps an unhelpful guide for learning that piece. There are little quirks of Gould’s from the second movement that I sometimes adopt.

 

Sometimes reading a piece of music away from its literal text can be insightful. Sometimes I use sight-reading and going ‘off the tracks’ as a form of improvisation. I often among friends create a form of humour out of music this way. ‘Insert a Chopin reference here’ (C minor cadenza) my friend might request, or ‘how would Mozart have interpreted this?’ (alberti bass), or ‘give this a classical ending’ (V-I-I-I-I-I….I cadence). Communicating humour is one way of expressing musical sensitivity. I would think that a composer like Haydn would hate his music seen as ‘serious’. On the other hand, I think Joplin might consider the his rags played a Steinway as great respect to his music in an era where he did not get the respect he deserved.

 

A musical performance is one that has conviction. Some people I know that will remain nameless are sometimes a little bit more technical in their playing than I am capable of yet cannot carry conviction. This can be due to many reasons: playing-music-by-numbers; not having an appreciation of the musical text; failing to understand the construction of the music; following conventions of playing set by others.

 

To call a performance musical is the highest esteem. A musician takes the performance not as a text, but an organic unity. A musician takes the musical performance as an artist: this can mean a reaction to a piece of music in its context of performance, its cultural-historic location or some other factor which makes the actual physical performing of it irreducible to its mere sum of breathwork or body movements.

 

I think one of the problems I had in a music education is failing to understand the musical. Sure, one could learn chord progressions, fancy italian names for how to pluck a string or memorise key signatures, but where’s the musicality?

 

I take this question to be primitive and foundational. At the same time, it forms as a constituent in the background of more critical questions, such as the discussion whether to be sensitive to a musical text, or to take liberties at interpretation. Or whether to consider the appropriateness of use of instrument and acoustics for a venue in performance. Or specificities in the use of technique from embouchure to fingerings.

On Getting my Clarinet Back

Last week I got my clarinet back. I realised a couple of things, one was how much I missed an opportunity of playing more back in the day. Another thing was how shit I am at playing the clarinet!

 

I got my clarinet repaired from an eccentric jazzman named Willy. I loved his antiquated slang, he would say ‘bread’ for money and call people cats; refer to old instruments as ‘war horses’ and joked about clarinet repetoire. I miss being around musicians, I was telling Jazzman willy about when I held a tenor sax one time and worked out the embouchure and its pitch range instantly. To which big Willy replied: the Saxophone is ten times easier than the finesse of a Clarinet! I laughed inside.

 

Finesse is a trait I do not have unfortunately. I’m still learning how to do the embouchure and I am remembering my old teacher telling me constantly what my playing flaws are. Getting my clarinet back has reminded me of how much I love just doing anything musical. I used my improvisation knowledge developed from the piano to blow out a few improvised melodies and modes and licks, and it feels like playing the clarinet is like revisiting an old friend. You change over time after meeting them for a long time, but also, the absence between us has defined us in a big way.

 

I’m looking forward to playing my clarinet more. When I hold the clarinet and make a melody, I simply think differently. I love the difference compared to the piano. The piano has a largely constricting aspect to it. When I improvise with chords, I make a decision about what to play, but also, what not to play. With the Clarinet, there is more emphasis on clarity of expression and less about decisions by denial.

 

My piano teacher made his career as a jazz saxophonist and clarinettist, yet we rarely talked about it in our work together on the piano. I love how playing on another instrument gives one a different musical identity, there is a beauty about having many identities, although you can’t play them all at once unfortunately.

 Michael

On three pieces of music

Lately I have been introduced to different ways of thinking about specific pieces of music. Three examples of prominence come to mind. Firstly is the final movement from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 (BMV 1004), or perhaps just infamously known as the Chaconne. The second example is the final movement from the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ Beethoven Sonata (No. 14, Op. 7 no. 2) ‘Presto Agitato’ movement. Finally an interesting Channel 4 Documentary ‘Chopin Saved my Life’ covered the subject of the impact of Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor (Op. 23).

I was introduced to the Chaconne and the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ in particular detail through a couple of MOOCs on music history recently, I discovered that these pieces had been received particularly well by composer peers. Brahms wrote of the piece to Clara Schumann:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Likewise, there is a certain universality spoken of Beethoven’s final movement in Quasi Una Fantasia attributed to Chopin, in his praise of the movement. The idea of having a ‘Baroque’ or a ‘Classical’ period suggests conformity or some sense of homogeneity, which oversimplifies the greater moments of which the period is supposed to represent.

In a likewise comment, Vladimir Ashkenazy claims in the Channel 4 documentary that anyone who attests that the Ballade is Sentimental is ignorant of what this piece is about. Any simplistic overview of 19th Century work would use such terms as sentimental, or Romantic, or perhaps terms such as ‘world-weary’, supernatural or such.

There seems to be a tension. How autonomous was Bach’s greatest work from that of his peers? How Baroque was Bach? We can speak of a Baroque in terms of having certain features: figured bass, textured harmony and melody lines and so-called terraced dynamics of loud bits contrasting with quiet bits, but does that really distinguish whether Telemann is worth listening to compared to JS Bach?

The problem with historicising is oversimplifying and contextualising without emphasising the individuals. On the other hand, sometimes emphasising the ‘greats’ through history ignores us from everyone else who does not count as one of the pantheon. Will Durant’s ‘100 Greatest Books’ is an list of intellectual works that shows breadth and a critical sort of dialectical line progressing through the historical dates of the books. However, often the connections between those dates are interesting in themselves and overly canonising works diminishes the value of other works.

Examples of this would be the Renaissance philosopher Campanella who had a very interesting empiricism that resoundingly looked like that of Hume or Hobbes. Many of these ‘canons’ ignore women systematically, although recent scholarship is working to redefine these lines. When we think of great works of music, I wonder if it is our subjective response to it that grants it our sense of meaning, or our attempt to grasp something universally powerful. It was the Kantian project of aesthetics to say that one was the other. But lets leave that as an open question: is it? Is my appreciation of the Chaconne the same as yours? Is the Chaconne on the violin (original instrumentation) as powerful as Brahms’ Left Hand scoring? In my own head I leave these as untied knots, unresolved thoughts, as each of these open questions brings up more factors.

Sinistre

On USBM and its alleged uniqueness

Following my discussion on Black Metal hegemonies, and Non-European Black Metal, I thought I would continue in the further vein of the chapters on ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (2012, Stosuy eds.) with American Black Metal.

 

I’ve heard Wolves in the Throne Room bandied about on so many discussions on Twitter, Facebook and the messages I’ve gotten through last.fm. Wolves in the Throne Room are a US black metal band, but are seen to be stylistically unique to the European black metal forbears. Their popularity is also a source of inauthenticity. I’ve often heard through some personal friends the most ‘hurrendous’ allegation that more popular black metal bands, or the infamous ‘post-black metal’ bands have gigs where the performers and audience have….gasp, short hair!

 

This sort of reaction seems to show how embedded some attitudes are within metal communities, or the emphasis on authenticity. Ironically, often these same people complain about the purists who say that black metal is not kvelt enough. You really can’t win sometimes when it comes to authenticity. Although perhaps the best response comes from not giving a shit.

 

Discussion of (in)authenticity aside, some authors have given an attempt at explaining the uniqueness of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the wider so-called ‘cascadian black metal’ that they apparently represent. Brandon Stosuy encapsulates it through the paraphrased Darkthrone album title: A Blaze in the North American Sky.

 

Instead of retelling the Norwegian mythology of the 1990s black metal scene, the US bands who call themselves cascadian, draw from their own sense of mythology, from their own environment and in this way do not end up as derivative as genres such as raw black metal, true black metal etc. are.

 

The US scene has different origins, different founding texts. For one, Death Metal was more influential, as Stosuy points out, and a defining moment of Darkthrone’s second album showed the cultivation of mixing Death and Black metal aesthetics and sound. Often the two scenes are kept seperate or even with some disdain for each other.

 

Stosuy points out how USBM is seen often as a joke, but focusing on the positive mythologies of the Cascadian scene shows how it has something unique to offer. Often these groups draw from more identifiably American genres, such as Punk and Shoegaze. On the other hand, some also point out how the term of USBM is just as cynical and market-y as the same kind of derision to say that it is largely derivative and a carbon-copy. That is a problem of upholding any genre label, the fear that it doesn’t actually fit!

 

It is true that Norway has a different social and economic climate to the US, and the ideal of USBM would presumably reflect that, as Thrash metal reflected the dissent of youth in the 80s, Black Metal should come from its social context and reflect that status quo. Stosuy ends his essay with an interesting reflection:

 

Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of Black Metal to flourish. But as the US dollar continues its nosedive, our Black Metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a diner in Norway – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – with converted US currency? […] While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than make up for that lack with our bleak view of the future. [Stosuy, 2012]

I have been continually thinking about this notion of being derivative against listening to one’s own sense of sensibilities cultural. It’s important to use those things around us as a source for our creativity, and much more enabling than simply copying what is currently done and what is currently in, in a given scene. I think about how Chopin turns the Nocturne (a genre invented by Irish composer John Field) into an expression of his more polish cultural sensibilities. It’s fair to say that often in European music history through the Modern period, that certain centres of power emerged between Italy and Germany – the lingua franca of written music still is Italian. Chopin expressed his cultural uniqueness by drawing from their sense of identity and context. The same could also be said for Bartok, perhaps even more so, as Bartok tried to do two things: firstly, to embrace and preserve select local folk traditions of central-eastern Europe through his Edison recordings, and also through a slight influence on his own music; and secondly through his attempt to help establish a unique American cultural identity. Bartok was not the only person with this project. One of my favourite composers (even if he’s not a ‘great’ composer like Beethoven), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor inspired the African Americans of his day to engage in the public life through culture, and the evidence seems to suggest, also politics.

 

Often in my Adorno-themed commentaries, there is a focus on the negatives of music and culture, such as homogeneity or the conformist way of cultural thinking leading to dullness of social imagination. However, movements that emphasise uniqueness or identity, such as the so-called Cascadians, may give potential for authentic expression, may give a genuine sense of cultural freshness and originality. It may even give a way of perceiving the world differently.

 

Michael

 

“Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” – A MOOC from Jonathan Biss

This month I have been following quite a few MOOCs. One MOOC in particular, and the subject of this post, is “Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” delivered by the concert pianist Jonathan Biss. Watching this MOOC helped me with a few reflections about music appreciation in general, as well as my own aesthetic tendencies and preferences. I recommend the MOOC for anyone with an elementary or nonexistent familiarity with classical music.

Accessibility

One particular dimension of the course, which surprised me a lot, was that it was very non-technical. I was expecting commentaries from musicologists and extended discussions on cadences and fugal writing. However it was not the specialism of Biss, who as a concert pianist, to comment on those aspects of Beethovenian and 18th century composition. However it does serve as a good introduction for anyone who has a passion about music to understand more about the ways in which Beethoven has a distinct legacy and relevance to listeners today. You don’t need to know too much about music to understand this course.

Music appreciation is lifelong

One of the key themes to this MOOC was that music appreciation is lifelong. Coming to terms with great musical works is ongoing through our lives. I grew in my appreciation of Beethoven while going through the course. I used to be a massive fan of the Romantics, and as I got to learn more about musicians like Adorno and Gould, I became a little bit more formalistic and austere in my musical preferences. However I feel like I’ve gone to a middle-way with Beethoven. There are pieces of music which have special value, and their value can relate to a time of your life, or your way of seeing the world then.

The joy of having a lifelong musical appreciation is that you can revisit pieces of music and simultaneously revisit yourself in a dual form of internal critique. To appreciate music is to appreciate culture, and to have an engagement with culture often involves an engagement with our own sense of individuality. It is fair to say for example, that my appreciation of motets and choral forms comes as a default from having a Catholic upbringing, but something like Beethoven’s later period is not something I was introduced to, yet learning more about Beethoven’s work in the post 1810 era makes me feel like I’m discovering a new part of myself, and a different kind of appreciation as a musician and amateur performer. I’m starting to appreciate what some may call ‘mature’ works of piano, which require emotional maturity as well as technical competence.

Socio-historical reflections

There are sociological and borderline philosophical insights that Biss had about Beethoven which will at a later point inform my commentary pieces on Adorno and philosophy of music, however for now I won’t focus too much on that. What I will say is that Biss’s discussion about the ‘independent’ musician feeds very much into discourses of today. Heck, even technical discussions about sonata form relate to songwriting today (which is a sign of poor technical ability for pop musicians today). Beethoven, unlike Bach, was able to write music that he wanted to write. Biss establishes a two tier scale of the independence of a musician against their creativity. The scale goes something like this:

Bach

Prolifically creative, Patronaged musician

Haydn

Highly creative

Patronaged, then independent musician

Mixed ability during independent period

Mozart

Highly creative during Patronage

Poor ability during independent period

Beethoven

Poor creativity during Patronage

Highly creative during independent period

The idea of the creative individual, self supporting has implications from the Transcendentalists of the American philosophers to Romantic ideas of the Bohemian, and relates to the discussion of the Adornian cultural industry. Beethoven was the cultural archetype of the independent genius, which has been mimicked endlessly since. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about the nature of dependency for artistic types to perform their work, relative to the financial support that they have. This discussion I’m sure will prompt my thinking on Adorno’s capitalistic view of culture.

The cult of Beethoven worship

Beethoven, for many the name has establishment and bourgeoisie linked to it. Like say, Bach or Aristotle. There is a reason why there is such hero worship about Beethoven, and that is due to the depth of his genius. Often however we have dilettantes who may for instance reference Descartes without actually understanding it as a way of passing off cultural capital or intelligence, and this is sad and facile. Saying this may merit an accusation of calling me a musical or cultural conservative: there is a good reason why Beethoven deserves a high place as a landmark European figure, akin to say Aristotle or Newton. Beethoven’s Sonatas express a multitude of temperaments, technically speaking they are wonderful works of pianism, the ‘New Testament’ to Bach’s ‘Old Testament’ (i.e. the Well Tempered Clavier).

A course such as this helps to unpack some of the reasons of Beethoven’s greatness. It even addresses a comparative to Mozart, in which the latter does not fare as favourably in terms of creativity. I have recently been annoyed at someone who has been trying to start a philosophy salon without having a clue about how to conduct philosophical argumentation or even appreciate the depth of the philosophical ideas he’s trying to appropriate, to borrow Adorno’s word, it is dilletanteish . A course such as Biss’s on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas makes accessible the numerous and profound ways in which Beethoven’s sonatas are truly powerful even as listeners in the 21st century.

Changing my own attitude to music appreciation

I’ll try my best not to sound snobby about music. Glenn Gould’s low opinion on Mozart’s later work is upheld by Biss himself. I remember a conversation that I had with someone completely unrelated to music, where the topic of piano appreciation came up. I talked about how I liked the showy Rachmaninov and Chopin pieces at the time, and he said how he enjoyed Beethoven Sonatas. I said to him that the Romantics were better than the Viennese classicals, and to me their appeal was much more obvious to me. The showiness and fanciful fingerings and exploitation of dissonances had a much more visceral and sensory appeal. The gentleman said to me that an appreciation of Beethoven comes from a more mature place and mature sensibility. I’m starting to be won over by that point of view. Not to say that I do not appreciate the Romantics anymore, but I am growing to enjoy the formalism and structures imbued in the more 18th century works. Biss emphasises the lifelong power of music appreciation. Music is a bonding thing between people and introspectively, music and its wonder is ongoing. Our relationship with the same piece of music can change, perhaps diminish or grow, and Beethoven’s Sonatas are a great example of a set of works that show development relative to Beethoven’s own life cycle, but also in response to our own introspection.

Michael

K457: Mozart as a metaphor

After my solo performance last month I have been thinking about continuing with my piano practice. I have also thought about picking up exactly at the point where I left off with my late piano teacher. Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor. That’s sonata 14 K. 457. The last few pieces that I worked on with my piano teacher in the final few weeks were scary. In some ways the represent something analogous to old relationships, old romances.

 

There is something unresolved about those pieces. Those pieces represent something unresolved in me. There’s a Rachmaninov piece where I just couldn’t get some of the speeds right, or just didn’t put the elements together in a performance worthy way. With the Mozart piece, I am reminded of the fact and semi-insult of my music teacher ‘Bob’, that I work very much on showy vignette short pieces. Could I ever work on an extended piece, such as a whole Sonata? I did perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Petit Suite de la Concert. But I never felt that I had performed or learned a piece that was part of a deeper pianistic canon.

 

So lately I’ve been trying to resolve this. IT feels like an internal journey going through the Mozart piece. There are different movements, a fast one, a slow one and a recapitulation one. Typical Sonata form. There’s something about Mozart that I find terrifying. Most of the other pieces of music I’ve worked on can be often clever, but there’s something continually insightful in the fingerings, the harmonies and the structure of Mozart’s music. There’s something beautiful about it that is not as obvious as the actual sonic experience of the music. I enjoy playing fun stuff like Scott Joplin or jazzing it up with friends, but usually there is not much intellectual depth to it. The pedagogical issues in Mozart are such that one cannot cheat with practicing and good technique.

 

This Mozart sonata is more than a piano piece to me, but reflects a form of philosophising, a form of introspection, a form of therapy. I fear it, therefore I must face it. There are many things in life that we fear that seem to become bigger as a fear object if we avoid it. This is one demon I wish to face.

 

There are other kinds of morals as well when practicing Mozart. The vision of music (and the world) as a variety of nuances: Forte vs. piano, legato vs. staccato, left hand vs. right hand. In music as in life, we can’t be overly one of these things all the time, doing so would be a flaw of character and a lack of depth and diversity. I tend to go for pieces that fulfill certain tendencies, but Mozart reflects and emotionally tempered and varied outlook, much more than say, Beethoven or Chopin after him. Often playing piano or legato can go against one’s present mindset, and so playing Mozart requires one to forcibly summon the mindset for smooth legati or piano volumes when the piece needs it.

 

One the thing I especially like about practicing Mozart is how it stays with me after I play it. It stays with me in the harmonic vocabulary when I’m improvising something else or even in a different style. It stays with me in life, knowing when my behaviour needs a staccato or a forte volume. It stays with me from the very careful passages I go through in a microscopic way, if I see it in another piece that requires say, an arpeggiation. It’s quite intimidating how much level of detail is in the Mozart sonata. Its exactly because it is daunting that I am so drawn to it. That has become an aspect of my outlook, to know that the daunting things often are most rewarding

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (4): ‘Sonority’

In Adorno’s two essays ‘Sonority’ and ‘Colour’; Sonority pertains to the significance of Wagner’s chromaticism and the harmonic choices applied in his operatic works; Colour relates to the effective application of instrumentation in Wagner’s score-writing. I will focus on the subject of ‘Sonority’ and Adorno’s reading that Wagner uses Chromaticism as a form of emotional regression, which in turn is an analogue for social regresion.

 

Sonority 

 

Regress 

 

Adorno points out the regressive tendencies of Wagner, even comparing it to the pre-historic alludings of the later composer Stravinski (Adorno 2009, p.51). Within the theme of historical and cultural regression to a previous time, The social subject can find himself within Wagner’s regression (Ibid, p. 52)

 

What is the significance of Regression? The significance is that in the regressive mentality, the subject sacrifices sovereignty to the totality of the music. Regression is in a dictionary sense, the antonym of progress. However, we may establish the equivocation of that term in a similar way. Namely, Adorno’s reading of an emotional and cultural regression of the subject enjoying the Wagnerian work, surrenders a capacity for critical thought or reflection upon the possibility of any alternative to the status quo beyond the options provided in the text, namely, present day, or regress.

 

Perhaps one way of illustrating the power of regression is through the recent Del Toro film ‘Pacific Rim’. There is a scene where a character, Mako, is placed in a machine where (for complicated reasons) she is suddenly stuck immersed into re-living a childhood memory. This memory was so powerful and tragic to Mako that she was unable to pull out of it and return to the present. Mako’s present was a situation in which she was vital and required her agency to effect change. Mako’s disposition to give her past trauma so much power became a hindrance to moving forward. Perhaps this might be a way of trying to illuminate Adorno’s wariness regarding the idea of regress.

 

Regress as a musical notion 

 

Musically speaking, Wagner’s rich harmonies fill the physical space of a venue and emotionally give an otherworldly feel. Adorno describes this other-wordliness specifically as non-temporal. The choices of harmonic decisions in Wagner’s composing are compared to the Impressionists of decades later. The impressionists in Adorno’s view percieved their reality and abstracted from it, and the result was their work of art. Musically speaking, this otehr-worldiness can have very powerful effects. The dreamy nature of Debussy in his most famous piano pieces (such as Clare de Lune) gives an otherworldy nature of perhaps introspection, natural beauty. The celesta in ‘The Hut of Baba Yaga’ of Korsakov’s ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ has an otherworldly quality of fantasy worlds that do not exist but in the world of paintings and human imagination.

 

I want it to be clear that other-worldy can mean very many things. However for Adorno, Wagner’s other-worldliness, his sonority, is specifically about a specific mental state of introspective regress. Music as a medium is distinctly non-representational, however the medium of Opera, which is also a dramatic and visual medium, gives the audience a specific leaning towards the meaning of the harmony.

 

Adorno says (p. 54) that Romanticism made Chromaticism a thing of progress, but Wagner turned it bland. Adorno puts forward a notion of Romanticism where suffering is expressed through chromaticism (p. 56), and chromaticism shows the poles of suffering and sweetness are blurred. Wagner presents pain in a pleasant way.

 

Wagner’s use of enharmonics as a way of transitioning in a way that alludes to the ‘old’ and original chord (p. 58-9):

 

But, by a strange reversal of the norm, these devices come to occupy the centre of the musical process and this endows them with an unprecedented power. They become fully comprehensible only in the light of a comparison with the most advanced material of contemporary music from which the inexorable presence of the Wagnerian transition has been eliminated (p. 59)

 

Sonority and regression – coda 

Why is this issue important? This issue reminds me of what is at the heart of a concept that I’ve been establishing in my mind that I may call Musical Conservatism. Musical conservatism is the notion that preserving aspects of past music in new music is a good. Musical conservatism is also by such a definition, resistant to innovation and emerging new idioms.

Regression is one aspect of musical conservatism, and I see conservatism everywhere in much current music. As a genre becomes established, new deities are made. Metallica, Slayer or Black Sabbath are deified in metal circles. In Black Metal, it is abit of a cliche to hear lots of underground bands referring to themselves as ‘true black metal’ or ‘raw black metal’ or ‘kvelt’, and despite the originally dire and revolutionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the bands of 20+ years ago in the early black metal scenes, what these ‘raw’ and ‘kvelt’ bands do are simply valorising the now-old Gods, and adding to their mythos by replicating their sound and aesthetic.

Regression is everywhere, even in the revolutionary mindset. The most dangerous aspect and the biggest threat to authenticity of revolutionary movement, political and aesthetic, is a fan base that valorises. Adorno’s discussion of Sonority is far more widespread than Wagner’s romanticism. Such regressive aesthetics permeate within any movement. What is particularly notable is that the forward thinking of the Romantic aesthetic eventually subverted through Wagner, into the repressive.

Michael

‘Bob’ (Or, on the influence of my music teacher)

Over the past couple of weeks I have been preparing a performance. The performance was part of a soiree, for an audience in a very casual environment. The soiree had a setlist of pieces, but unbeknownst to the organiser, there was a second section of the night which consisted of a few surprise acts. My former music teacher, Rob Rathbone was directing the choir and the surprise was specifically for him. Bob (or as I still refer to him, sir) is retiring this year and a few of us from the past had reunited to come and perform to remind him of the various people who he has had a distinct and positive impact upon over the years.

 

It was odd coming together with familiar faces and unfamiliar faces all to celebrate the career of a very influential teacher. Throughout the night in the conversations I had with various people, I realised how deep Rathbone’s teachings, and even his personality had been a big impact on me. I loved the way how during the choral performance of the soiree, Robert gave descriptions and a bit of background about the historical context of the various choral pieces. Rathbone is a master of the preamble, the anecdote and a veritable raconteur. Later on in the evening, we had a brief chat in which we tried to out-raconteur each other. The conversation went as such:

 

RR: So, what was your recital piece again?

MP: I did Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Petit Suite de la Concert’ 

RR: Oh yes, I remember now. Coleridge-Taylor is a brilliant composer and it is a tragedy he isn’t played more

MP: Oh I totally agree, I cannot believe how influential he was on the idea of an autonomously African American culture in the early 20th century. It is a testament to his impact that he is held to this day in such high regard in the USA and during his own time. Coleridge-Taylor met Booker T. Washington, President Roosevelt and yet in England he is basically forgotten, it is a tragedy.

RR: I know!

MP: I have been writing a blog series about forgotten composers, and I am in awe of trying to remember the black composers of earlier periods, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Coleridge-Taylor. I am even writing a piece on Hildegaard –

RR + MP (unison): — von Bingen, the first known composer of written music!

RR: I think it is an amazing testiment to her ability and prominence that a woman at that time could be such an accomplished figure, it is brilliant! 

Robert was the one who instilled a passion for music history within me. To have an opportunity to play for (and impress) my alumni peers and my former teacher was a great honour. It was a great honour to play the piece that for me defined my pianism of that time. It was a great honour to represent my cohort year group of the early 2000s to acknowledge his impact on us. It was a great honour to play again as a piano soloist, as although I practice a lot, ‘playing’ to an audience is a much different affair.

Maestro, and former pupil (FYI he did not teach me how to dress)

I tried to instill some humour into my performance. I tried to instill a bit of stage pompousness and character in the way that I used to. Robert really appreciated that, to be reminded of the old times of our era. I spoke to alumnus after my era at the college and it was a joy to hear from them of similar stories about certain teachers. It was assuring to know that there are still some universals out there in the world, like a certain mathematics teacher’s wrath.

There’s an old Jesuit saying: show me the child and I’ll mould the man (with various variants). Returning to the college is like returning to my spiritual home. I felt that there are few other places that remind me of what I have become was as a large result of what happened within the walls of that colelge, and a big part of who I am and who I became as a musician and a person interested in culture and philosophy in a large part came from the pastoral and musical teachings of Robert Rathbone. As I walked home from the pub I made one last pass through the school and I thought to myself: after all these memories of the past what do I do now? I thought I might just go on with the present and the future and try not to dwell too much. What I can say though is that much of what happened in my past set the agenda that I still follow today.

I’ll try to get those essays on Adorno completed soon!

Michael

On Improvisation

In my education and training as a musician, I have never learned to improvise. However my teachers had much experience with improvising. My teacher of music history and harmony often improvised offertories and other such situations in the sacred contexts of Catholic Mass as an organist, and my piano teacher Jack Daniels as a jobbing jazz musician in the early 20th Century.

Learning to improvise makes me really feel like I am playing when, performing as a pianist. Play comes to mind very strongly. For me, improvising as a form of play establishes a set of rules, and follows its own sense of momentum when done successfully.

I’ve been jamming (as we call it, rehearsing is my favoured term though) with some friends lately, and one particular friend is a self-taught musician. I have been introducing improvisation to him by trying to establish little tricks, little maxims. These are:

  • Know the tonal centres: what is the tonic, what is the dominant. If in doubt, hang around those notes

  • Take risks, get out of your comfort zone, learn to make something new.

I’m still learning myself about improvising. However as I work within genres when it comes to improvisation it feels like playing within rules, then potentially following them, subverting them or creating a new set of rules. Musical improvisation feels like an immensely imaginative and creative activity for me. However in my approach to improvisation it relies very much on the pedagogical playing principles that I have developed and continue to develop as a player. In short, the more I learn how to do things by the rulebook (be that Bach, Romanticism or Pop Songs) the better I am at having a recourse and a vocabulary in which I can create.

Improvisation feels like playing. It feels like an authentic and original outlet for creativity and one’s inner aesthetic sensibility. Improvising feels very much the pinnacle of Kant’s notion of the ‘free play of the imagination’ between the faculties. Kant’s notion of genius can also be typified by the exemplaries of originality: to follow no rules but the ones one sets for themselves.

Michael

 

Non-European Black Metal

The one thing I really like about Black Metal, is how many countries have made it their own. Yes, there was all the stuff about the satanism and the church burnings and Burzum’s activities. But Black Metal means many things to many people. I’d like to talk about a blog I’ve recently been following. The blog Black [sic] Spring often hosts a lot of self released material, material that is purposely made available by bands for free in the bootlegging spirit.

 

I really found this blog interesting because of the non-metal albums it refers to. There’s a lot of ‘folk’ music from North Africa and broadly Arab countries listed. I admire how a particularly sensitive attitude is being displayed about the music. The music is often referred to as ‘folk’ but also acknowledges how some of it embraces more popular and western styles, often in subtle ways. I love how this music local to countries like Algeria or Egypt are drawn from as insightful from and directed to an audience who would normally listen to raw black metal cassettes. I love the renaissance attitude of openness towards difference, and a Romantic openness towards the folk culture, and using it as a cultural and idiomatic resource.

 

As the bands of Sweden and Norway became more polished after the 90s and a commercial culture emerged around Black Metal. The African, Latin American and Asiatic demo tapes that have come out of places like Colombia, Sri Lanka, Algeria or even Iran and Iraq continue to express a rawness and despair coming from their local situations. Black Metal is daring from those places, often they are stylistically interesting. Particularly when the distinctions that many black metal conosseurs make about subgenres do not hold.

 

When I think about writing that commentary on ‘In Search of Wagner’, an open question is in my mind about Adorno’s outlook: is there a possibility for cultural defiance, is there a possibility for a radical reform of our social consciousness through culture, in the light of the cultural industries and the European history that has preceeded the Second World War? I am increasingly convinced that Black Metal is an answer to that question, and that answer is Yes.

 

I wonder what Nietzsche and Schopenhauer would have thought of the radical potential of Black Metal, the nationless underground nation, and the way it has been adapted to various localities, including to political ideologies that are deeply uncomfortable. I recall an interview (I think it was with Fenriz from Darkthrone), where it was said once the news went international about scandals about murders and church burning with the Norway scene of Black Metal, black metal at that point was no longer theirs, it became something for everyone. Non-European Black Metal is a frontier within a frontier, showing that there is still underground potential, and still an expressive capability within the genre. Another frontier is DSBM, which in a way has an opposing direction, instead of being internationally expansive, it is inward.

Michael