Returned to Sender

Belated apologies and what have you!

It has been a very hectic time these last few weeks/months with PhD applications, major recitals, moving to London and a production of the Sound of Music. All within the space of a week though all these demands (and more!) suddenly ended and it’s only now that I can catch up on the shameless and questionable art that is blogging. There will be more frequent posts now and I thought I’d provide my recent recital program notes to make up for the lack of it! It was quite an elaborate 3-piano/electronic/percussion set-up as shown:


Masters Program Masters Program2

It Would be Unimaginative to Make This Title a Pun on ‘Liszt’

Throughout history and beyond, there has been a relentless stream of musically prodigious acts in almost all disciplines, and the field of music has in no way been lacking. Beethoven himself was said to have composed the Ninth Symphony at the age of nine while floating in a lake. That is not strictly true,* but more of a literal misunderstanding of the scene towards the end of Immortal Beloved. Yet it proves the point that some of the legends surrounding musical giants are allegorical; the truth is harvested from the cocoa tree of reality, crushed and fermented by the dual catalysts of 19th century sensationalism and controversy, roasted by flamboyant business acumen and finally undergoing the conching process of time. The result is a smooth and tasty confectionary that does not at all resemble the hard, bitter pod of its origins.

*At all.

Anyway, many of these super-human feats by musicians are indeed true, or in the case of earlier, un-verifiable-by-NASA generations, generally unprovable to not be true. People can be clever sometimes, and so I don’t doubt the plausibility of something like (W.A) Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere after one hearing.

Crest of the NASA Anagram Society

Crest of the NASA Acronym Society Addicts

However, in 2006 I was reading the Alan Walker biographies of Liszt and as one can probably imagine, here was a composer whose reputation was built on much Paganini-esque mystique.

Yet among it all, an incident recorded herein caught my doubt and curiosity. Strangely it was not regarding Liszt whose accounts and legends troubled me so, but one of his students, Ernesztina Kramer (1864-1936). Thanks to our friends at The Internet, here’s the account in question:

Of special interest are the recollections of Ernesztina Kramer, who was Liszt’s student for three years from 1882 to 1885. Ernestina had been an infant prodigy, and by the time she was ten years old she was a student of Erkel at the academy. The day dawned when she, like others before her, was introduced to Liszt. He asked her to play something, and since she had been specialising in the music of Schumann, he suggested one of the latter’s sonatas. Nervous and trembling, the poor girl lost her composure and started to play the sonata a semitone high. Liszt did not interrupt her, but let her continue in the wrong key to the end of the piece. The girl then noticed what she had done and cried out: “My God! How unfortunate I am! I can play anything in any key, and that is what happened here.” Liszt consoled her and said: “My child, thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate” (1997, p. 297, Walker).

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

While this is a throwaway anecdote tangentially related to a man who frequently imbibed from his well-stocked cellar of anecdotes, this raised a lot of questions. Here are some doubts I’ve been festering for the last six years:

  • This is Ernesztina’s own account which doesn’t seem to have been echoed anywhere else… and neither does she really (at least in the digital realm).
  • Despite being an 18 year-old prodigy (assuming she saw him soon before he started teaching her), she didn’t notice the tactile, pianistic implications of the ‘unconscious’ transposition, nor the harmonic implications. Which kind of means she performed music entirely thinking only about relative intervals. Not the note, key or chord names, not the absolute pitches, and not even the feel of the piano under the hands (and a semitone higher is a long way in circle-of-fifth world).
  • Again despite being a prodigy, she had a loss of composure at an activity she’d be doing since birth.
  • Again despite being a prodigy and apparently having excellent relative pitch skills, she did not notice it sounded a semitone high.
  • Again despite being a prodigy, and well aware she could ‘play anything in any key’ did not seem to have been told at any point in her history that this was in fact a talent.
  • Furthermore she seemed under the impression it was a curse.
  • Ernesztina did not go on to have a career significant enough to be noted by our friends at The Internet over a century later. Which is a post-humous death sentence.

Anyway those are the bulk of my concerns. Could something like this really happen? Put it this way: I’d happily believe it if she trounced into the room, sat down at the piano, spat heavily and quipped “Pick a piece, Monsieur Liszt. And while you’re at it the key too.” People are clever sometimes, we’ve established that. But generally not simultaneously clever and yet blundering along with massively fundamental and basic mistakes and then not even recognise the resultant phenomenal feat as anything other than ‘misfortune.’ It seems such a talent is negated by a lot of weirdness about the situations.

One other thing. It seems that alternative explanations either partially or completely discredit her story, there’s no realistic, middle-ground explanation. To wit:

The Idealist says: Ernesztina’s account is true and she was raised by a wild pack of absolute-pitch-hating wolves in order to develop her abilities. And then rescued by another pack of relative-pitch hating wolves to repress them. It has been known to happen.

The Optimist says: Ernesztina could play transpositions intuitively, but on this occasion did so deliberately and only pretended it was a mistake so as to appear humble.

The Realist says: I don’t know. I’m still watching the perfect-pitch dog video.

The Pessimist says: Ernesztina went and learned the Schumann sonata a semitone higher. Then pretended she believed it was a horrible upsetting mistake/curse so Liszt wouldn’t make her try it in other keys to verify her talent.

The Cynicist says: It probably didn’t happen at all. Aaaaand there’s no evidence other than a self-account. But if there’s one thing to be gleaned from history its that people don’t ever lie about themselves.

Are there other considerations missing? I’d certainly like to know! Of course, humans are capable of spontaneous transposition and even more amazing things, but if they’re talented enough to do it subconsciously, they should probably also have the much lesser observational abilities to be able to realise they’re doing it. And even if not, to recognise or have been told at some point it’s more of a super-power.

Well, now I feel somewhat bad that I’ve stayed up to 1:30 am to rant about and criticise the account of a long-dead woman I’ve never met who left no discernible mark on the world save a paragraph in Alan Walker’s biography about someone else. However, she can rest easier knowing that now when people google “Ernesztina Kramer” (with the quotations) they’ll get a third result. Thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate.


A short note.

A few years back I found this wonderful discography.

Music for Piano and Orchestra: The Recorded Repertory by Dr Allan B. Ho

In case you didn’t look at it just then it’s effectively an impressively exhaustive list of recorded piano concertos – defined as a work for piano and orchestra (seven or more instruments total). It’s a constantly updated work and now goes for 369 pages… With around 25-30 individual compositions listed on each page. I lack the patience and/or technology to actually count but it roughly means there are at least 10 000 recorded works for piano and orchestra identified by this study.

2000 per Corgi

I’ve always had little more than contempt for strict, mindless adherence to the classical canon, evidenced by many piano competitions listing a small handful of allowable works. Typically these include two concertos by Mozart, five by Beethoven, two by Chopin, three by Rachmaninoff, and one by Schumann, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Saint-Saens, Bartok and Prokofiev. You could maybe double this number to allow for other common “standards” and other works by the above composers… Also it is also a fair comment (as I established in a previous post) to say that orchestral programs featuring concertos rarely branch outside this small European paddock of musical stagnation.  Let’s say a basic concerto repertoire of forty concertos, but feel free to double this again, or quadruple it, or quadruple it again! See if that makes much difference.*

40/10000 x 100= 0.4% of the repertoire.

* still only 25.6% Good luck naming all 2560 ‘common’ concertos!

I find this statistic kind of ridiculous. Though it’d be a hard study to undertake, I think a statement that 95% of pianists play 5% of the repertoire is actually not too far off from the truth. Sure, there’s always the occasional novelty in your typical pianist program, but it strikes me that anything more than that in the music world means you’ve gone off into the ‘niche’ that is ‘uncommon/rare/new music.’ Congratulations, you’ve become a specialist. Is it not absolutely ludicrous that this apparent niche occupies 99.6% of available ‘art’  piano music, at least in the concerto field.

This is why I’m confused when I’m told I need to play more mainstream music. If I chose music at random, with this sort of statistic I’d need to play 249 concertos before finding one that pianists normally played.

Admittedly, not all this music is going to be amazing but even if you hold that 0.4% so dear and infallible  (though if you look really, really hard at the Chopin concertos you’ll probably start to wonder why…) you’ll still have to find something worthwhile in at least a more substantial percentage.

Bat country

To put it in perspective: According to our friends in Wikipedia, only one-eighth of the Earth’s surface area is habitable, and 0.4% percent of that mean’s that you’re only happy living on a square about 160km wide. That wouldn’t get you out of any but the obscurest of the European countries. People would not call you well-travelled.

Dear Pianists: Are you really that afraid?

No pictures this time. Oh maybe one or two. I think the bold font compensates.

Essays before a Review

Just quoth it.

So there it is. May I start out by saying that I don’t usually go to concerts, despite often playing in them.

This usually occurs because of commitments when something I want to go to is on, typically rehearsals (especially at night) or because the inane music interests me less than Dances with Wolves does to “The Didn’t Like Dances with Wolves Society”. But today was one of the rare encounters which happened to coincide with a recent bout of frustration over the lack of music reviews provided for emerging musicians. Nevermore! There were three forces at play here:

1: Enjoying the concert and wanting to articulate it.

2: Wanting to write a review because it should be done more (and personally wanting/needing reviews myself!)

3: The continual background question as to what I could write my next blag about.

So gather ’round. Where I come from the music criticism scene, at least for classical music represented in major media coverage, provides a written snapshot of its immediate musical surroundings with the same accuracy that a sea pig (see very much below) could give you in a self portrait. While the latter lacks eyes, practical appendages, and has all the intelligence of the sea cucumber that it is, the critics in question correspond to the simile with mindless, generic and bland reviews on only the largest whale carcasses symphony orchestra events. They generally fawn over the program, merely describing the composition in flowerful language (Yes I just made a word).

Artemis and the fawn.

Here’s just a small selection of actual quotes from these critics.

“the whispered opening of cellos and woodwind through the intensity of strings and brass” 

“[the pianist’s] cadenza after the main orchestral theme spanned four octaves with impressive ease, moving to a beautiful duet with clarinet.”

“The restless strings exquisitely built from pianissimo to forte, while the languid opening of the romance confidently showed the piano leading the orchestra, giving way to ferocious playing in the final rondo.”

In fact, I could (and did) basically copy and paste any sentence at random from any review to prove the point. I was surprised that I couldn’t find any mild reproaches, though they do occasionally crop up. But otherwise it’s something to make the [Ives Quote] Old Ladybirds of Both Sexes, henceby referred to as OLBOBS or Olbobs, break into that crackled anthem of “oh isn’t that just loverly!”

They also excrete alkaloid toxins.

One could easily write about a concert they didn’t attend using the observable formula above (yet articulated below):

The 1.[evocative adjective] 2.[compositional feature/instrument]3.[happened/did something + floral praise] 4.[joining words]5. [something else]6.[happened/did something + floral praise] 7.[Repeat 4-7 as desired]

Hence enabling the churning out of unimaginative-yet-nice-sounding crap like:

The utterly crystalline flute melodies soared above the underlying brass sonorities with delicate precision, eventually descending to be taken over by the beautifully crafted oboe duet that brought the main theme back with brilliant aplomb.

Furthermore, if you had even a passing knowledge, or at least skimmed through a work on the youtube, you could make quite an effective and convincing review of this loathsome calibre just by noting what played where a few times. How it was actually played doesn’t matter in the slightest. The audience that it relates most to is only there as they believe that because the music is Classical it is already sublime, and your typical Olbobs look forward greatly to getting a dose of poetic validation to justify their Emperors-New-Clothes-Style-Orgasm in (and probably on) the following day’s paper.

NB: I have never used the word aplomb before.

So, here we are, towards the end of this post. I decided early on that I would reserve the actual review for another time (soon) so as to not defile it with this preceding rant in case it was ever found useful and it thus could be taken more seriously. Time for pictures!

Perfect Cadence.

Bathtub Mock-ups.

Good Evening,

A while ago I was doing some editing with sound files and thought it may be an idea to try and create some electronic music for first time.

The result was a brief electronic tone poem that was eventually entitled “Bathtub Mock-ups,” coupled with an old sketch I did years ago and placed delicately onto The youtube.

It was a curious experiment which has led to the creation of two other short pieces. I figure I may as well explain what it’s about as it won’t take long and I have other things I should be doing.

Bauble. Plastic Christmas decorations. Some more elaborate than others. Some less.

Basically, it was just layered original sounds, modified extracts and voices, mixed in together with no regard for the outcome. It gets its name from the opening quote by Glenn Gould … semi-meaningless and a joke in context. But retrospectively it seemed to reflect an argument for ‘jazz’ being taken as ‘serious’ music. It takes these rather-out-of-context fragments by (American Composer) Aaron Copland explaining (over a mechanical/etherial background I guess) that he was anxious about creating an ‘American’ sound in music, before putting in the disclaimer that however “we had done it in the jazz field.” All the while a jazz motive breaks out and repeats. Then enters Duke Ellington rebuffing this categorisation with: “We don’t use the word ‘jazz.'”

At this point the background music grows more complex and dissonant, until it suddenly reverts to the simple jazz motif and Copland lamenting that an American sound hadn’t yet been achieved in the ‘kind of serious music’ he was interested in. Again Ellington rebuffs as though to say: “Yes we have!”

“Yes we have!”

It closes with Tim Page, in conversation with Gould, referring to ‘celebrated brouhaha’ which seem to me to plague most of these musical identity crises (particularly in Australia). In today’s universal, possibly over-influenced world, the concept of nationality in music has gone way beyond blurred, like the bread I soaked in a bucket of water for a month in ’97. America can definitely (totally) claim things like Jazz as part of its original voice, but nowadays the moment any Western composer attempts to create/discover/define and impose a style on (and only on) a nation they are really engaging in the futile, if for no other reason than even if successful there’s very little stopping it’s spread past the geographical boundaries before a nationalistic label can be affixed. Especially via the wonderful internet.

And (hopefully) ironically, this little piece which happened about American national identity*  is in itself not the outcome of nationalistic identity.

* …and how American composers sometimes neglected to seriously acknowledge the ((more successful)) identity efforts of their own fellow Americans!

I could close with a nice heart-warming rhetorical sentiment like “And that makes the world a little bit more interesting… don’t you think?).

But that is too typical of blogs, and I don’t mean it anyway.

SEA PIGS!!!! You’re welcome.

I’ll add irrelevant pictures now.

Composers: The Need to Compost.

This blog tends to oscillate flippantly between absurdism (joy) and aesthetical rants (rage). Apologies in advance, but it is the latter’s turn. Joy and rage are my two emotions. Florestan and Eusebius, but it is ambiguous as to exactly which is which, who is who and who is which. I can’t believe Eusebius is a real name…

...Eusebius Mandyczewski. Ironically almost came close to editing Schumann's music. He did Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert though. I pimped up this photo a little, being the first in its history, I can safely say, to do so. (*)

(*) Likewise. I could go on. And almost did. You're lucky.

Anyway. I digress. I will endeavour to let the pictures and the quotes (to make this statement less profoundly cliche) do the talking.

The following quote by Ives struck me as interesting. Despite the fact a lot of them do.

“We might offer the suggestion that Debussy’s content would have been worthier his manner, if he had hoed corn or sold newspapers for a living, for in this way he might have gained a deeper vitality and truer theme to sing at night and of a Sunday … It is rare to find a farmer or peasant whose enthusiasm for the beauty in Nature finds outward expression to compare with that of the city-man who comes out for a Sunday in the country, but Thoreau is that rare country-man and Debussy the city-man with his weekend flights into country aesthetics. We would be inclined to say that Thoreau leaned towards substance and Debussy towards manner.” – From the Epilogue of Essays Before a Sonata.

Considering that one of these delightful characters is Claude-Achille Debussy (the larger one), I could not wish for a better picture at this point. Although I do later on.

I think my opinion here is obvious in relation to Debussy’s musical style and its emasculate parallels with French 1900’s high society so touchingly illustrated above… Or often high society anywhere and whenever…

Yet I was snooping around the library throughout the last week when I came across a book on John Cage. It was in French, so I understood nothing about it (birds may have been mentioned) but it did have this as it’s cover:

Just look how happy he is! This is what music should be about!

When asked if he would be a composer all over again Cage said no – he would much rather be a botanist as he was sick of all the competition and jealousies in music. His mycologist friend replied “Well that shows just how little you know about botany!” (Cue audience laughter)

Some further reading in other books revealed Cage’s great interest in mushrooms and cultivating them. I wonder whether you can tell a lot about a composer’s music by how they lived, and that was something Ives was perhaps getting at. Cage was a tremendous innovative force, much like Ives (and Cowell and Satie for that matter) and his music doesn’t conform, restrain, remain static or apologise…

I laughed audibly when I found this on the cover of a library copy of Debussy Preludes. This was my principle motivation for this article. It would make a good T-shirt, no?

…But what of Ives’ himself? I recall reading of his own wood-chopping exploits possibly in a diary of his somewhere, but I did tangibly find the following account:

Umpawaug Road in those days was just a dirt country road… It wasn’t paved until 1928, and when it was, Ives got quite upset. He was also outraged when the first airplanes began flying over, and whenever he heard one he would come out and shake his fist at it and shout ‘Get off my property!'”

Ostensibly Ives doing just that. You could say that the others were just trying to do the Wright thing.

In conclusion. The spectrum between manner (how) and substance (what) in music is, according to Ives, influenced by their dynamic and complex relationship with vitamin D, hand calluses, accidental scarring, arachnophobia… the list goes on. The topic deserves a more thorough looking into but it’s considerably past midnight.

Program Note-oriety.

I was always quite annoyed at the ever-growing climate of pseudo-informative pre-concert talks and program notes in concerts spouting history trivia and detailed music analysis under the pretext of making the music in question ‘more accessible.’ I believe all it really does is make those overzealous audience members develop a smug sense of superiority to their peers, rather than a greater appreciation, as a large amount of music – especially the standard classical repertoire being played in such concerts – is perfectly able to be listened to without knowing that ‘the second subject starts in the relative minor of the subdominant,’ or that the composer was quite depressed at the time of writing due to the death of the family axolotl.

With an aversion to this in mind I prepared the notes from my 2010 Master’s Piano Recital accordingly: Giving neither meaningful facts or explanations, but rather an aesthetical rant… Complete with Sudoku puzzles because at times concerts are just plain uninteresting – a sombre fact many classical musicians have yet to come to terms with.

An End More Like A Beginning

8pm, 17th November, 2010

About This Concert:

Rather than provide trivial nuggets of information, such as what each piece is about, what to expect, when it was composed (if applicable), what key changes occur throughout, and what quaint observances make the above pieces (arbitrarily chosen) fit together in a nice program, I thought it may be more insightful to instead write down a few thoughts which have come to mind during the conception and gradual realisation of this concert, in a similar fashion to Ives who, in his Essays Before A Sonata, rabbits on about his aesthetics at length and relatively neglects addressing the actual content of the Concord Sonata (which contains “Hawthorne” and “The Alcotts”). In doing so, it is pretentiously hoped this can leave the temporal and abstract aspects of the music to their own devices, unfettered by pre- conceived expectations and forcing an audience to enjoy it on its own terms. Also, program notes are distracting. Granted, in boring concerts they serve as a kind of welcome refuge, with audience members passing time by searching for sentences they haven’t yet read properly. Ergo (!) perhaps a successful concert is one where no-one ends up reading the program notes at all. I don’t even really know if it is compulsory to provide them. So with this in mind, you will probably not find anything too informative here.

Reflecting on the concert at hand, I guess that nothing in it could be termed entirely ‘serious’ music, maybe with the exception of “The Alcotts” which nevertheless contains elements of Ives’s cynical humour with the intentional inclusion of ‘wrong’ notes (“What’s all this?” asks Rollo… NB: ‘Rollo’ emerged as a popular children’s book character, a creation of author Jacob Abbott. He was used by Ives as a figurehead of musical complacency.) Everything else is more overtly suspect from a conservative point of view, whether because of a close affinity with non-classical music genres, an intrinsic absurdness, or being infused with a deliberate intention to taunt and frustrate examination processes.

Rollo, a good little boy with an inquiring nature “who cannot stand up and receive the full force of a dissonance like a man” - Cowell

The latter is represented most by the interludes: their purpose is to provide changeover music while the stage is being set for the different ensemble combinations, and so they take certain liberties not consistent with a piano recital. They make no effort to defend themselves from the inevitable accusation “this is not piano music.” Yet as Hawthorne scholar Brian Way would say, it hints ‘at the existence of a universe that is more incalculable, more anarchic than that contained in the architectonic simplifications of art … and they imply a notion of art in which the grotesque is quite as important as the sublime or the inspiring’ (1982). But mainly they are included here because of the stage changes required.

A piano recital is, by definition, generally fraught with monotony and at high risk of lacking colour, no matter how brilliant the playing. I believe it was Franz Liszt who first coined the term ‘recital,’ to describe the new-fandangled concerts emerging post-1830-ish, where instead of musical evenings featuring an array of instrumental and vocal stimuli, a single virtuoso soloist occupied the stage for the entire concert duration. For those of you attending expecting anything like such an event, I applaud your aesthetical courage, but rest assured it is not necessary here. This is not a recital, but a concert closer to the earlier type, making good use of variety and innovation. Featuring not a single soloist, but five musicians, playing music or something close to it, or not like it at all. And especially refusing to adhere exclusively to the concept of a solo piano recital. It was not intended to be entirely consisting of American and Australian repertoire, but it is nevertheless, which is more a reflection on the creative and humourful spirit of these musical environments. (Also, to clarify, “humourful” is possibly not a real word, but it seems more appropriate than humourous in this context, and “light- hearted” seems too trivial.)

In dealing with technical aspects of Ives’s music, one is constantly faced with his own aesthetic principle, outlined for instance in the Memos: “It’s better not to … play every thing and piece and measure the same every time” (1973). Additionally, for a piece like “Hawthorne,” typical negative pianistic remarks associated with normal classical performance may actually be perceived as compliments, much to my teacher’s chagrin. Conversely, comments such as clear, accurate and polished playing are in fact criticisms in this context.

The title “CREDO IN US” is deliberately ambiguous as to whether it is pronounced ‘us’ or ‘U.S.’ hence the capitalisation.

The title of this recital comes from a description by the wonderful Ives scholar Jan Swafford on the closing few notes of “Hawthorne”: ‘An end more like a beginning.’ Endings and beginnings therefore play an important role in this concert, as they do in most things…

In summary, I hope you enjoy whatever it is that transpires tonight!

See you in an hour.

Sibelius Syndrome

Dear Student Composers,

Learn an instrument. Please. I beg you.

An instrument according to our friends at Google.

I think that phrase distils the essence of all my lengthy and repetitious criticisms regarding playing new works by tertiary level composers. (Not of course that it applies to everyone, it’s just a general observation.)

Here’s a term: Non-musician student composers!

Come. A brief search on the interweb shows this topic has occurred before in human history. Alas, a thread inviting discussion on the trend of composers who aren’t performing musicians quickly denigrated into semantics about whether a composer was technically a musician or not. My faith in humanity just dwindled a bit. Never mind.

But as someone who has had an interest in student works, including actively seeking them out, I find the same cliche factors and tendencies, ironically to do with ensuring that their music is ‘different.’ This seems to mean removing any kind of association from Classical music. To start from scratch. Unfortunately this tends to have the same effect as teaching piano by letting the student pfaff around aimlessly for an hour without music to make them learn how to play on their own. How organic.


Most disturbingly, possibly because of notational software, composers can sit back and put in dots without having to know or care about the realities of the instruments they write for, especially without regard to how difficult or easy what they have just written is.

A student composer loses my respect the moment they do any of the following:

1) In hearing musicians play their excessively awkward work badly, they have no clue if it was made up or not.

2) They give a meaningless instruction or a failed ‘advanced’ technique. “Pluck the string inaudibly”

3) The music written is excessively ‘copy and paste.’

4) Overly pretentious directions. Eg: “Tentatively like a harpooned whale” (Doubly so if they’re in another language. “Versuchsweise wie ein Wal harpuniert”)

A 'tentative' version of a great white shark. Made so by another (bigger) shark. P.S. I do not like the fact that this little 'tiff' happened quite close to where I live.

5) Notation is excessive and/or meaningless. Eg: Chords with lots of dots and accidentals that overlap for instance.

6) The writing is blatantly and consistently bad for the instrument. Particularly if it only explores a tiny fraction of it’s potential. It is true that many fantastic composers write/wrote awkwardly for instruments, and that’s the performer’s problem. But when a composer does it out of ignorance….

Ignorance is never a convincing excuse. Hence why learning an instrument would sort out most of the above points.

There will be times when the behavioural qualities of a punctured orca may be an appropriate direction, and in these rants I should stress that there can be a time and place for anything, but chances are if you’re still a non-musician student composer you won’t really be needing it until you know how just what a performer will think and do when they see your score. Perhaps the underlying problem is that as a student the dots only have to look good on paper and be argued in aesthetical rants not to dissimilar to this one, in order to make the composition lecturers happy.


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.

Marmots and Their Orchestral Rationale

What is a Marmot?

It is a type of ground-dwelling squirrel. See below.

What does ‘semantic’ mean?

Well semantics is a study of meanings, particularly to do with linguistics.

So a semantic marmot is a squirrel who studies meanings in languages.

Or semantically:

A semantic marmot is a large, ground-dwelling squirrel of the genus Marmota marmota who undergoes the act or process of applying the mind so as to acquire knowledge or understanding, as by reading, investigating, etc, something that is conveyed or signified with particular emphasis on the systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols.

With that out of the way, perhaps we can turn our attention to more pressing matters. Bear in mind it may be a little difficult to preserve the continuity with what has come before.

I have an issue with a certain orchestra. They play too much standard classical music.

I made a graph to prove it. In doing so I counted all 77 pieces and categorised them as European or not and then Popular Repertoire or not. The results are thus:

So what can we learn?

3.9% of the concert season is dedicated to European music that is not common repertoire. (Common in this context a major/significant and well-known work by a well-known composer (Beethoven, Mozart, etc) that a typical Classical concert-going audience could expect to hear every few years or so)

14.29% of the program features uncommon/new works from non common composers. (This may seem substantial, but these are concentrated in three concerts and are mainly Australian premieres, and half of these are by the same featured Australian composer. They are being performed in much smaller venues and are not being performed in the same concert series as the ‘real music.’)

A grand total of 0% of the popular (well-known) music is not European.

Orchestra, 81.82% of the pieces you play are standard  pieces from Europe that everybody knows. Bad orchestra. Bad.

*Smacks on nose with rolled-up newspaper*

Even worse, if we only consider the main concert series. This figure increases to 95.45%.

Alas. This is the state of classical music. Static. An auditory museum where people to congregate and gush only at pieces that they already know.

As Grainger said:

I firmly believe that music will someday become a “universal language.” But it will not become so as long as our musical vision is limited to the output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900. The first step in the right direction is to view the music of all peoples and periods without prejudice of any kind, and to strive to put the world’s known and available best music into circulation. Only then shall we be justified in calling music a “universal language.”

So in summary. This particular orchestra seems to be doing nothing more than gratifying a dwindling audience of old ladies (of both sexes as Charles Ives would say) who are looking to remark how ‘lovely’ and ‘nice’ the concert was. (As I’m sure is the case frequently with many orchestras.)

And they wonder why classical music is dying along with them. It’s being suffocated in the stale environs and mindless traditions of what classical music is ‘supposed’ to be, rather than an open-minded, living and breathing art form. Which ironically is what those Beethoven Symphonies were at the time they were written.

Alas, this is just a fraction of what I have to say on this topic. But it’s a start.

With thanks to the back of a loose sheet of an application form, who generously donated the space for the above research tally.