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BOOM'S DUNGEON
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LIFE Magazine, Nov. 22, 1943, reporting on the fee for first performance rights paid by Columbia Broadcasting Corporation for Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony


The first performance rights fee of $10,000 [1] paid in 1943 for Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony may not seem impressive in relation to a single concert fee of $3,000-4,000 commanded in the 1940s by top performers like Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz [2].  However, when compared to the typical first performance fee of $100 paid at that time for the music of American composers [3], the Shostakovich fee seems downright astronomical.

I have never encountered an explanation of this shocking disparity, but I am sure it cannot be explained by supposing that the princely sum paid for Shostakovich's symphony was a deliberately over-generous show of support for the music's role as a symbol of  struggle against Nazism.  Such an explanation would be doubtful for at least two reasons.
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7 months ago | |
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... Stravinsky, Hindemith ... I have issues with them, but they’re not the same issues that I would find with the so-called contemporary composers of the late 20th century.  Elliott Carter, it was kind of pathetic what he was doing after 80 or 90 years.
The American composer George Walker speaking about his musical contemporaries, "In the life's coda, master composer George Walker has a symphony in mind", Geoff Edgers, The Washington Post, August 22, 2015.
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I congratulate The Washington Post for allowing a black composer of serious music to prove to the world that, in America, one can be a certified asshole without being an uneducated white Republican voter.
8 months ago | |
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The American Association for the Advancement of Learning has decided that the mathematical language of physics is too difficult for today's students to understand.  In order to attract more students to science majors, the Association recently announced that, over the next three years, it will commission 36 physicists to translate all of basic physics into plain English, so as to make the discipline accessible to the widest possible audience.
     A typical example of proposed translations considered by the Association is the differential equation known as Newton's Second Law of Motion translated as
If you push harder, the damn thing will move faster.
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The above announcement would be easy to dismiss as yet another absurd and unfunny mental burp of Boom's deranged mind if it weren't for this very real news item in today's New York Times:

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for today’s audiences to understand. It recently announced that over the next three years, it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.  ...  Other venues, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the University of Utah and Orlando Shakespeare Theater, have already signed on to produce some of these translations.  (James Shapiro, "Shakespeare in Modern English?", The New York Times, October 7, 2015.)

Since 'modern English' beloved by 'today's audiences' is rapidly becoming Twitterglish, I expect the announced translations, when published, to look something like this:

How is my fantasy about translating physics into 'accessible English' more absurd than this reality?

8 months ago | |
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The 2013 Russian law against propaganda of so-called non-traditional sexual relationships criminalizes distribution of visual and reading materials

... causing minors to form non-traditional sexual predispositions, notions of attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relationships, ... or imposing information about non-traditional sexual relationships which raises interest in such relationships.

As with most things Russian, there is a palpably surreal aspect to this piece of legislation.  After all, this is the country where propaganda posters and photographs of political leaders from its still cherished Soviet past include images like these:
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8 months ago | |
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And why not?  Although v2  and  p are both irrational real numbers, the former is a lowly algebraic number while the latter is transcendental.  Surely that is enough for v2  to envy and hate its much hyped competitor!

Before you decide that I have completely lost it, let me point out that the above ascription of emotions to numbers is no more imbecilic than ascriptions of emotions to temporally organized pitches (along with durations, timbres, and amplitudes) which constitute a piece of music.  A recent example of this dimwitted psycho-musicology can be found in The Guardian (Sept. 24, 2015) where one Kate Molleson had this to say about the music of the Spanish modernist composer Christobal Halffter (italics mine):
   
He lived in Spain during the Franco regime and his music burns with the desire for non-violence and human rights.

Why a newspaper that employs competent and perceptive music critics like Tom Service would give space to vacuous babbling of a fucking retard like Ms Molleson is beyond me.  But so long as Ms Molleson continues to receive regular paychecks from The Guardian, I hope she gets to write on other subjects as well.  This way the world may learn that because Isaac Newton was abandoned by his mother at the age of three, his laws of motion burn with the resentment of parental neglect.  Or that because Alan Turing was gay, his mathematical model of computation - the Turing Machine - burns with the desire for handsome young men.

8 months ago | |
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A few days ago I had to give my students a very informal explanation of the notion of logical possibility: an entity or a state of affairs is 'logically possible' if its description does not involve a logical contradiction.  As usual, I started with a trivial example.  I said:

"I'll tell you the beginning of a story - just a couple of sentences - and then I'll stop and ask you if I should continue because you accept the beginning as describing something that is possible.  So, yesterday I was at a garage sale where I saw a coffee table in the shape of a square circle, i.e., the shape that is both a genuine square and an honest-to-goodness circle.  I bought this coffee table and brought it home."

Then I stopped and asked if I should continue.  One student, a cheerful young woman, immediately raised her hand and declared "No!"   "Good," I said encouragingly. "Now tell us why not?"   "Because who on earth would want to buy such a weirdly shaped coffee table!"
9 months ago | |
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According to Einstein's Special Relativity theory, the length of moving objects shrinks in the direction of motion.  The faster a thing moves, the shorter it becomes. 
I suppose this explains why I always have more legroom in my car than in a fucking airplane.?..

9 months ago | |
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There is no such thing as female orgasm.  I've had sex with dozens of women and it never happened.

Few people (especially women) would fail to see the joke in the above argument.  Yet the same faulty logic, which takes subjective experiences as reliable indicators of objective facts, seems to defeat the sense of humor in many music critics faced with evaluating the merits of new music.  Consider, as representative examples, the following excerpts from three different music critics reviewing new or very recent music (italics are mine):
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10 months ago | |
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Music making doesn't get more "authentic" or "historically informed" than this: an orchestral work performed by conductors who knew the composer very well (and were responsible for commissioning the work in question) and by highly skilled musicians fully capable of meeting the composer's demands for instrumental craft.  And of course the instruments played are those the composer himself would expect to hear in a concert hall.  Compared to these credentials, it is hard to see how the allegedly 'historically informed' performances of works from the Baroque and Classical eras could be anything more than wishful thinking of delusional amateurs and egomaniacal charlatans [1] financed and promoted by record labels desperate to find new ways to sell recordings of already numbingly over-played and over-recorded music.

The work in question - Elliott Carter's Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993 - 1996) - also happens to be one of the great symphonies of the century, a work whose harmonic richness, rhythmic ingenuity, and (in the outer movements) sunny playfulness offer a seemingly inexhaustible source of intellectual and emotional rewards.  The five live recordings below (all from directly captured high bitrate webcasts) offer remarkably diverse perspectives on the music and, as a result, a proof that the very notion of "authentic" or "historically informed" performances is simply meaningless.[2]   (The last two of these recordings had been available on my blog before, but the old links are now dead and I thought it would be well to make them available again.)

1. Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin (2008 Berlin).  Barenboim, who premiered the first movement of this symphony (Partita) in Chicago, is the only conductor I know who sees a pronounced romantic streak in Carter's music.  (He is right.)  A good example is the hushed episode for strings and woodwinds about 4 minutes into the first movement, which Barenboim infuses with the sensuality of Mahler's Adagietto.

2.  Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1998 Manchester).  This is a BBC broadcast recording of the world premiere of the complete symphony. (Knussen's studio recording of this symphony for DG, fine as it is, feels rather lifeless by comparison.)

3.  Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (2014).  This performance comes from one of last year's all-Carter concerts in Glasgow.

4.  Jaap van Zweden and Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (2007,  Concertgebouw).

5.  Emilio Pomarico and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie (2009 Berlin).  Perhaps it is a matter of recording balance (or somewhat compressed dynamic range), but Pomarico - who works regularly with such cutting edge bands as Ensemble Modern and Klangforum Wien - conducts the edgiest (perhaps 'hippest' would be apt) performance of this work.

To end on a rather melancholy note, not one of the above performances is by an American orchestra.  I suppose the American idea of patriotism does not go beyond waving a flag and stuffing oneself with hotdogs on the Fourth of July...
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[1]  Not long ago I listened to a live broadcast of Christopher Hogwood conducting his 'period instrument' band Academy of Ancient Music in an all-Beethoven concert given in Utrecht in 1996.  The very opening of Beethoven's 2nd symphony - feeble, stuttering, and painfully out of tune - would have been enough to convince anyone that the reputation of this conductor was created and kept on life support in the editing rooms of recording studios.   Taken off this life support even for a single concert, it died a swift death within the first few bars of whatever composition was played first on the program.

[2]   The notion of performing a musical work "in the way the composer himself might have heard it" should have been recognized as sheer lunacy by anyone familiar with unimpeachably authentic yet radically different performances of Mahler's symphonies by the composer's disciples Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.      
10 months ago | |
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If you will insist that, as a matter of fact, Hitler did not like 12-tone music, you are an over-educated imbecile who clings to a hopelessly outdated notion of truth as somehow rooted in facts.  I suggest you wake up and get acquainted with the modern, de-factualized notion of truth long championed by the sanctimonious and perpetually self-congratulating New York Times - not only in its political coverage (going as far back as its Pulitzer-earning reports of cheerful and happy life in the USSR during Stalin's purges) but also in its music criticism (a, b, c).
     A good example of the latter is Vivien Schweitzer's review of recent concerts of contemporary music at the Tanglewood Festival.  In describing compositional preferences of the featured composers, she had this to say about Elliott Carter:

Some of the featured composers, like Mr. Carter, were partial to the 12-tone method — a system for atonal music invented by Schoenberg in the 1920s involving all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. [1]

As a matter of fact, although Carter appreciated the 12-tone music of the Second Viennese School, he himself did not use the 12-tone method and had expressed a rather dismissive view of the method's aesthetic significance with respect to his own creative goals:

I have found that [the 12-tone method] is apparently inapplicable to what I am trying to do, and is more of a hindrance than a help. [2]

 Of course I do not suggest that Ms Schweitzer was deliberately lying in her review.  With no formal musical training and with only a superficial understanding of musical composition she is simply unqualified to write about serious music, let alone the complex post-War avant-garde music of Carter, Boulez, and Wuorinen.  Which, I would guess, is precisely what makes her such a valuable long-term asset to the New York Times - a sinking outfit desperate to plug its financial leaks by replacing highly competent but costly critics with cheap but incompetent freelancers.
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[1]  "Tanglewood's Contemporary Music Fest Milks Many Sources", New York Times, July 26, 2015.
[2]  Elliott Carter, "Shop Talk by an American Composer", in Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Lectures, J.W. Bernard (ed.), U. of Rochester Press, 1997, p.220.
10 months ago | |
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