A Balancing Act.

Ever so often, whether it be for exams, recitals or competitions, musicians are asked to prepare a ‘balanced’ program. Ostensibly this is to demonstrate an understanding of ‘a wide variety of styles and techniques.’

Yet the very term ‘balanced program’ makes me frown. Often at the double standards that it has come to represent in classical music.

Let’s be semantic.

The Semantic Marmot strikes back! I hope you like pears.

Balanced Program: A series of musical works of harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts or elements, as in a design.

Sounds rather vague and subjective, does it not? It does.

Specifically, it causes me great pain: as many teachers, examiners and audiences use the term ‘balanced program’ as a cover for ‘works from standard eras by well-known composers.’ I guess this in itself sounds fair enough, except that the very definitions of ‘musical era’ is commonly held askew and is misleading.

It is understandable that much ‘Western’ classical music was based in and around Europe up to the Baroque era. As such it was relatively standardised in that composers really had to conform to the demands of aristocratic and theological circles. An Age of patronAge. The same applies to a lesser degree to the Classical period, still more or less Europe based… But where do we put  someone like Scarlatti? Do we apply chronologically definite years? Or is how the composer wrote more important? I think more the latter, although this is not always allowed in program guidelines, and more importantly it assumes composers wrote the same way for their entire life. Anyway – that’s but a minor niggle, and a convenient loophole at times – one can easily find three classical-sounding composers from late 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s, thus fitting the definition of three chronological ‘eras.’ I digress.

Romantic era. Yes, I guess that is also quite definable and encompassing. Including late Russian Romanticism into the 1940’s.

Russian Hat Piece And/Or Winter Delicacy.

But my main concern, dear reader, is for the Modern period. Where countries-other-than-the-European-ones began to produce composers of note. Where schools of thought (I hate schools of thought – it implies closed-mindedness) began to form around certain composers and styles. Where experimentation and integration of the new and the old began to occur. Where some composers wrote not for audiences but to them. Patronage, and even audience-gratifying took a back seat. And then so too did classical music I guess, (ie: kicking in the back seat), in favour of more popular styles and tastes. And so on.

The problem is that all this wild, wild diversity is classified as ‘Modern.’ Just one piece please. As a novelty. No more.

And thus this is a culture of unfair hypocrisy.

Take a look at the AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board) Syllabus for their LMus piano qualification. They provide four categories for creating your very own ‘balanced program.’

According to these, the following program is acceptable:

List A) Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue No.8

List B) Scriabin: Sonata Fantasy in G# minor, Op.22

List C) Rachmaninoff: Etude Tableaux Op.39 No.1

List D) Prokofiev: Sonata No.3

Let’s graph these dates:

Program from Guide Lists

Hmmm. All within 54 years of one another.

Hmmm. All by Russian Late-Romantic Composers.

But no. That’s balanced.

Everything is just fine. Thank you for asking.

But what about this: (If we choose the option to devise our own program from the set list)

List A) Carl Vine: Piano Sonata No.1

List B) Messiaen: Vingt Regards sure l’Enfant Jesus No.19

List B 2) Schoenberg: No.3 from Three Pieces

List B 3) Barber: Ballade, Op.46.

Tsk. Tsk. Absolutely not! Those are all ‘Modern’ pieces.

But let’s graph them anyway.


Program of Own Choosing

Oh. Look at that! Some 81 years difference. Instead of 54. So perhaps that means more diversity? ‘No, it’s all Modern.’

But what about the fact that the composers are Australian, French, German, and American? ‘No. it’s all Modern.’

Well how about the fact that the styles are Dance/Jazz based, Experimental, Atonal Expressionism, and Neo-Romantic? ‘No. They are all to be classified as Modern.’ *smack on nose with newspaper*

So. If you want to provide a ‘balanced program’ of musical styles and colours, apparently by just playing the Russian Late Romantics you’ll be covered.



In summary, many musicians today assume anything non-standard in classical music composed, or sounding like it was composed after 1900 is all modern and therefore cannot be played more than once at risk of sounding unbalanced. But playing the well-knowns, regardless of their geographic and chronological proximity is ok as long as they fit into pre-established categories.

Look at Mozart, Schubert and Chopin. Three composers. Fifty years and two countries between them. All tonal, with key signatures and everything. Nothing relatively dramatic in terms of musical differences except progressively more ‘romantic,’ ie; louder, longer and more chromaticism. But it’s a perfect balance, as is commonly testified in countless recital programs. And of course such a combination can be balanced – rather my point is that then saying over a hundred years of intensive and diverse musical development and global involvement fits all under the one category is purely hypocritical.

The rational judgement is missing.

“A series of musical works of harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts or elements, as in a design.”

If a program works, it works.



I am going to go to Pianist Hell for the following blasphemy. (Pianist Hell is a place where one must repeatedly listen to Arthur Benjamin’s ‘Jamaican Rumba‘ in all it’s vapid forms and arrangements (Even youtube lists 140 results! The ending of this one is classic) while sitting on uncomfortable chairs amidst an overly enthusiastic audience of old ladies who keep saying ‘oh, isn’t that just love-a-ly?’)

Arthur 'I write music about places I've never been to' Benjamin. An 'Australian' 'Composer' who never went outdoors.

But I will go there specifically as I am going to review a performance of Martha Argerich playing the Schumann Piano Concerto and am NOT going to fawn. That sentence already has some music lovers sharpening their knives and/or souping up their effigies of me.

Quite a good likeness.

In any case I was bound to approach Martha with a degree of caution. Although I have heard her recordings on a number of occasions, I am naturally wary of someone whose reputation far exceeds what I perceive it deserves to be. Not that I don’t think she is an excellent pianist, just that surely she is not the divine entity that quite a number of people I know insist she is.

Effectively that is the point of this post. Seeing beyond the worshipping for what the music really is on a case by case basis. Not forming an opinion before even hearing it. Using key-word cliches et al *shudder.* And of course this applies not just to Argerich and not just to performance, but composers and various other traditions as well, but I will deal with that later.

So I listened to the concerto. Both out of curiosity and as I’m currently relearning it. Overall it was very good, but technically nothing countless pianists have not achieved over the years: it’s not the most virtuosic piece in the repertoire. Good communication and sensitive control on Argerich’s part, (I admit I had expected her to vamp it up quasi-Rachmaninoff and was pleased she didn’t) but the Gewandhaus Orchestra was a lot on the insipid side. Rank and file playing the dots and what not.

Passion sold separately.

The main issue I had with the performance was Argerich’s lack of enthusiasm. Despite playing it all these years I felt it was more like she was visiting some older relatives who only want to discuss their yearly rainfall, rather than exploring the nature of the piece. Maybe viewing it as the uniting medium that it was for Robert and Clara Schumann, and experiencing that same passionate love. Or with an introspective intensity and nervousness typical of Schumann’s music. Or even the uncharacteristic extroversion shining through at times. It demands ’emotional virtuosity’ someone once told me. We instead received technical and musical competence. bravo with a small B and no exclamation mark.

In this piece it seemed more like it was ‘just another performance’ by someone who has played it too many times and though it was good in the usual sense, it was unsatisfying in another. Substitute any proficient recording market it as Argerich and no-one would be any the wiser. But lo, that wouldn’t stop the fawning. I am completely certain that the intangible magic and uniqueness of her playing would still be found there in an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ fashion until it turns out it was not her playing. Hmmm. Now there’s an interesting experiment! In fact that’s what prompted this post. The scores of inane comments. Some of the gems:

“I really like her command over the whole orchestra. She is a strong pianist and person. And probable the greatest pianist of this time.”

“Oh Martha. Such command and fearlessness.”

Sigh. Well if she is ‘probable’ [sic] the greatest pianist of this time, I think we are in trouble. Of course there is no shortage of comments of this degree of vague inanity on the internet in any category of anything, but what is alarming is that these comments also come out of the mouths of so-called ‘educated’ classical music lovers.

Pianist Personality Cult Members: What they should be wearing.

It is painful that someone can rely on their reputation to command high demand, and also be able to treat audiences with such disdain (Argerich is a serial concert-canceller) and still have people saying that even mediocre performances ‘must therefore be good.’ To me her reputation is greatly at odds with what she produced here. I have no shame in saying I would prefer watching a less technically ‘brilliant’ and unknown pianist ravish the opportunity to be up there instead and show some real virtuosity of the emotional kind.

Martha in the Concerto.

Congratulations are due to the audience in this instance who refrained from a standing ovation at the end. Save it for a truly moving performance – you will know one when you see it.

Clap, clap, clap. Yes. Next?

My Internal Reaction.

An Electrical Citrus Essay

In this day, age and social context it is blindingly obvious just how necessary electricity is. It has become apparent that people are prone to disappointment should their electrical devices run out of charge when they are away from traditional sources of power, without a charger.

As you may or may not recall however from primary school science experiments, it is possible to create a basic battery out of citrus, or most other fruit and vegetables. (Because of the high acidity, citrus works best though.)

A clockwork orange?? Oh, I get it now; never mind.

It is, however, not the most efficient battery available, with a standard lemon producing about 0.9 Volts and 0.0003 Amps when connected via readily available zinc and copper electrodes (a bit of metal that you stick into the fruit.) Thus, four or five lemons connected in sync are sufficient to run a small LED (Light Emitting Diode), lasting around five hours or so. Apparently two lemons can run a small digital clock.

Sadly, this seems to be as far as people/scientists go, with a few theoretical observations being such that to run a flashlight bulb would require some 5000 lemons. A halogen bulb requires 37000.

In this, a brief and inaccurate exploration into the more practical and impractical uses of the humble lemon battery et al, we shall explore and theorise at a more exciting level.

A Truncheon and Assorted Members of the Mobile Family

Firstly, to charge your phone. Well if you happen to be stranded in an orchard and need to charge your phone, you’ll need to produce about 2 Watts (Voltage times Amps) and each lemon will give you about 0.00027 Watts. Therefore you’ll need 7400 lemons in sync operating for around three hours to fully recharge your phone. Oh, and you may want to add a resistor too, as 6660 Volts would be flung unintentionally at your phone otherwise all at once. Moral: make it last.

On the high power side of things, you’d need about 500 mA of direct current to electrocute someone. That’s about 1 666.7 lemons. But you’d need a voltage of 2000 Volts ideally, so 2300 lemons to be ‘safe.’ But if you wanted to merely feel an electric shock , 500 lemons should do. However, this would create quite a large and painful Amp value (150mA).

Ironically, to operate all the magnets in the CERN’S Large Hadron Collider, you’ll only need 16 240 lemons. This is because each magnet is cooled to superconducting temperatures, resulting in a massive current. Also it costs about $100 000 to electrically run the darn thing each day, and if you estimate that there are about 7 moderately large lemons in a kilogram, you’d need 2320 kilograms. At around $4 per kilo that equals $9280 for a five hour stint. $46400 for a 25 hour lemon-induced atomic collision spree. I detect value.

The Large Hadron Collider. Could operate if the 10000 scientists involved used their lunch.

In summary, you’d need almost four times as many lemons to charge your phone than to kill someone, and if you wanted to charge three phones, you could run the world’s largest particle accelerator on a shoestring budget instead.

Now. It is possible to make a HUMAN battery through similar processes. So let’s consider a practical situation. There is a point in the underwhelming movie Dead Snow where two characters, stuck in the middle of nowhere without electricity suddenly ‘remember’ they have a mobile phone but it soon goes flat. The cottage they are in is surrounded by hordes of up to 300 Nazi  Zombies. The problem: can you recharge the phone using a human/zombie battery system?

Nazi Zombies. A blessing in disguise?

Let’s be optimistic and assume each zombie can produce .5 of a Volt (when the people at the end of the chain touch copper and zinc electrodes (and that they can still sweat – as the salt is what makes the human/zombie battery work). Holding hands, and being insulated from the ground by their boots, they would form a chain and produce about 150 Volts. Let’s also assume they had been eating/bathing in citrus, or something, and had an Amp flow of 0.0003 each. This would produce 0.0045 Watts of power!  Nowhere near enough to charge it in the usual three hours. (But a lot of quality standing-around time holding-hands and if you persisted – I estimate it would take 55.5 days.) Three Germanic cheers for those involved!!

It seems, like those at CERN, I have too much time on my hands.

P.S. Electrocuting someone would cost around $1300 in lemon batteries. Don’t try this at home. It’s too expensive.

On the Antipode with Bad Maths

Nothing special really. At least from where I stand.

Only Atlantic ocean swells for company, and the nearest major land mass would be Portugal or Spain, depending on currents, but it would be safer by far to swim for the closer Archipelago of the Azores, specifically São Miguel island, being the most populated. They have a good dairy industry I believe.

A Dairy Cow. May contain dairy products.

However, the ocean in this region though is populated by sixteen registered shark communities, including most of the biggies (Great White, Tiger, Oceanic Whitetip, and Hammerhead), as well as posing the ubiquitous threat of orcas.

Your antipode (pronounced an-tip-odd-ee), dear reader, is the opposite point on the earth to which you are standing.

The World with all its Antipodes

That is if you tunnelled straight down and then up (because gravity would swap halfway) the point at which you’d emerge is the antipode. A common generalisation (or mis-generalisation) of this principle is ‘digging to China’ which only really applies if you are in or around Chile or thereabouts.. (And I’m sure they didn’t invent the saying.) Australia unfortunately is nestled snugly within the Atlantic Ocean. Likewise, any particularly adventurous/ambitious American children or indeed citizens attempting such an adventure will surely be disappointed by the low phytoplankton count of the Indian Ocean.

A Phytoplankton. The ocean wonder that Americans will be missing out on. (Not for individual sale)


This is hardly surprising, seeing as 71% of the Earth’s surface is water. Assuming even distribution of land masses you’d have only a 29% chance of having a land antipode. Estimates of the current world population are 6.9 billion. Again making unwarranted assumptions, this time of an evenly distributed human population, about 4.9 BILLION people have an antipode that WOULD KILL THEM. If they weren’t in a boat or some other floating, life-sustaining craft. Someone should make a movie about that (ie: everyone suddenly finding themselves at their antipode)… Of course this doesn’t take into consideration Antarctica, where Greenlanders, upper Canadians and a few hardy Russians would end up (gives new meaning to ‘Cold War’ doesn’t it?). I approximate another 200000 or so to write off as casualties of science fiction.

The world in this instance would have to be repopulated by Chileans, Chinese, New Zealanders from the North Island, Spanish, Indonesians, additional South Americans whose antipodes happened to correspond with Indonesia, and any marine life that subsequently developed a taste for human flesh and went off in search of it on land. Most of the populations of America, Russia, Australia, Africa, India and Europe, et al, would find themselves bewildered in a vast expanse of water.

If it’s any consolation, dear reader, a lot of sharks, orcas and other would-be marine predators would conceivably end up ‘beached as’ if they simultaneously had to suffer they same fate (why just people?). They also have the added disadvantage of sudden pressure changes, enabling the deeper sea critters (sperm whales, angler fish, etc) to explode in a most spectacular fashion. = Land animal win.

Angler Fish: The grumpy old men of the sea. This is actually a female. The males are much smaller and latch on and ultimately fuse to the female for life.