Pianifestos and Quay-fish.

*Rant Warning* This post contains statements with moderate to severe levels of sarcasm and rage.

In 2008, I encountered my first street piano. Coincidentally, this was the very year that street pianos became a thing officially – an international project by Luke Jerram. Briefly, he (or possibly his minions) acquire old 2nd-hand uprights and place them on the street, where people may play them at will.

Anyway, it was in Sydney that this encounter occurred (I was not living here at the time) on a wander around Circular Quay (pronounced “Circular Qway”); I heard the faint, honky-tonk strains of a piano coming from near the contemporary art gallery. Someone was playing something … I don’t remember exactly what, but I was amazed by the concept. Whenever I’ve encountered pianos in the wild, they either normally come with ‘Don’t play’ signs, are locked, and/or everyone seems to be ignoring them like that old room-full-of-monkeys-cold-water-and-a-banana paradigm. Google the latter if need be.

But this was different. It said ‘Play Me, I’m Yours.’ I do remember playing some Brahms Horn Trio on it, going off to see the gallery and later coming back to play some more. Encouraging public performance. Unthinkable! Liberating! I spent over a week wandering randomly and locating ever more pianos scattered around Sydney, playing little more than a perfect cadence on each to establish its playability before going off in search of more.

See!

I even took a photo!

But there was a dark side. Little did I realise that this seemingly wonderful project would soon inflict a rather unique form of dysfunction upon society. I can’t really think up a suitable name for it (I later did, piano hog-ism), so I will describe it. The street piano ideal is supposed to encourage lots of things; the curious with no musical experience tinkering for fun, children playing things they’ve just learnt, even professionals doing publicity stunts, all the while making music and expression happen in everyday public life. Wonderbar [sic].

What it doesn’t take into account is that often lots of people would like to have a go at a given piano as they pass it by. So they gather around the current performer, adding to the crowd of spectators. Mr Current Performer is playing something that requires two chords of arpeggios and would probably come from Twilight were it not completely improvised. The’ve not had formal training, but watched some Youtube videos of how to recreate favourite hits on piano with only two fingers and a truckload of looking like an affected, romantic musician. They reassure themselves they are being suave.

Yes

Artist’s Impression Stage one…

After doing this for 10 minutes or so they decide to finish and look up. What an amassed crowd! And crowds, habitually at the very least, are biologically programmed to applaud at the end of performances. So they do. Encouraged and emboldened, the current performer decides to give them more of what they want, choses two new chords and launches off again. Some now bored spectators depart, only to be replaced by new ones, drawn by the crowd size, and with a fresh sense of wonderment. Those who still wish to play linger on. The pianist concludes after an eternity. The applause is still fresh and enthusiastic! Well I never!

Evidence 3

Artist’s Impression Stage Two

This goes on for some time. After a while, the pianist notices you. You’ve been there for either 40 consecutive minutes and 3 waves of renewable clapping, or even after much longer time intervals as you return to see if they’ve finished. ‘What could it be that you’re after?’ they ask themselves. The realisation dawns on them. ‘More of my wonderful playing of course!’ Mistaking the daggers in your eyes for captive stares and touched that they have such a dedicated fan, they continue this process unrelentingly until such time that a total absence of audience coincides with that brief, hopeful surfacing for recognition.

Artist’s Impression Stage Three…

Basically, the process is a cycle:

A) Belief that playing the piano to any level is such a rare gift that it is inconceivable that anyone in the crowd would also want to play the piano. (This is unlike swings in the playground for instance, or looking through a public telescope; in these cases a natural queuing system exists and though people may wildly appreciate one’s prowess on the swing set, one would always have an awareness that others may want a turn. The street piano concept represses this awareness.)

… that leads to:

B) Belief that a crowd must therefore only be present as spellbound moths to the flame, and the performer has a duty to keep going as long as there is an audience (unaware that people come and go).

… which eventually leads to:

C) Applause, which means ‘Encore!’ Thus the performer believes they are creating something magical, which leads us back to A).

There are many varieties of the piano hog (there I named it!).

Sometimes they hunt in pairs or packs (as those in my last post), clunking and singing away at Beatles hits before swapping roles, creating the illusion of giving others a turn, when really just keeping it ‘in the family’ as it were, and providing a perpetual, mutually admiring audience of one at all times. An unhealthy, symbiotic relationship.

Sometimes the piano hog is territorial. It is the guy who spends multiple hours on the same piano everyday on his way home from work, repeating the same few pieces. It is his ritual. This species builds up a library of all the passer-by compliments they received over time to cement their position of absolute dominance and validate their authority over the piano and interprets prospective performers as upstart rivals. Anyone who happened to be playing upon his arrival is met with a terse ‘I’ll take it from here, thank-you-very-much.’ Meanwhile, somewhere out in Hampstead, a marriage deteriorates as a partner dines alone. Again.

Occasionally, the rarer breeds emerge. For instance, and for want of a better name, the I-actually-have-playing-piano-anonymously-as-my-career-path-but-i’m-not-getting-paid-osaurus. Often advanced in age, the above specimen is often seen dressed up especially in patched tuxedo or pinstripe suit, playing ragtime and putting on a show, like an amusement park character on a three-hour shift to accompany silent movies. However, this is not an amusement park, but Kings Cross, St Pancras. A relic from a bygone era (not even their own bygone era; silent movies had all but died out by the 1940’s), they rely on pity to a great extent, having gotten all prepped to come in and play they truly look as though they belong there. Asking them to move on would be like telling the sad, loyal old man who continued to make wooden barrels* unpaid on the doorstep of your father’s barrel factory in the decades after it closed down that the demolition team had already commenced countdown, and that the new Krispy-Kreme store that will replace the soon-to-be crater of his former, husk-like life has a strict no-barrel-maker hiring policy, and besides, he’s much too old. As you do.

Logo

My left-handed attempt at the Krispy Kreme logo via a remarkably unresponsive online drawing program.

So in conclusion, I must emphasise my gripes with the piano hog are not with his or her technical proficiencies or chosen repertoire. Indeed the most healthy aspect of the street piano is its encouragement of everyone. Instead, it is that most often those with marginal (as opposed to none)-to-moderate pianistic ability, sometimes have a strong tendency to lose awareness in regards to over-staying their welcome, becoming quickly addicted to positive public receptions. This quashes other peoples’ piano opportunities, not only other passing kenner und liebhaber pianists, but the curious and the to-be-inspired who perhaps had never had a chance to play a piano; the whole point of the project. To the piano hog I’d suggest that the swing-set etiquette analogy may perhaps serve as a useful guide: Have a good swing by all means! Enjoy peoples’ reaction to your impressive heights and death-defying leap off into the sand. But know when to stop, don’t ignore the queue and get right back on. Kthxbai.

*A surprising amount of quandaries regarding things such as classical music’s meaning and role in today’s society can be resolved quite effectively if you replace ‘classical music’ with ‘barrel’ and solve for y.

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Rant Warning. This is a rant. (It’s been a while)

“What fresh hell is this?”

That is my initial thought upon hearing any noise coming from outside.

You see, we have moved into what we thought was a nice and reasonably-priced apartment. During the inspection we saw a couple of cats and thought nothing of it (I’m very much a cat-person despite always owning dogs and indeed, the prospect of having a trio of someone’s pet cats around was actually an attractive feature), but within a few days of moving in the true colours came out: It’s not an apartment, but actually a crazy old man’s feral petting zoo.

Catacular

Connect the dots and it makes a fish.

Allow me to introduce our subject. He is old, senile, indecipherable (both from a poor grasp of English and the nonsensical fragments that do make it past that particular filter), and only ever wears pyjamas and a dressing gown. But, oh my, most significant of all is the delightful personality cocktail of extreme paranoia with a twist of contradictory ineptitude that combine to make a world outside my window one that defies any sort of logic.

You see we have a cat problem. Problem is an understatement. Usually it means someone’s pet coming at night and sitting on your lavender bushes. At a more intense level it signifies a small group of cats that consistently like to sit on your porch. To the most extreme degree I’ve found on the internet it’s a group of feral cats that are attracted to some kindly old widow feeding the kitties out of kindness until they breed into a veritable hoard. That’s the extent of the problem for which there are ready solutions.

Solutions like Molly, the slightly-cross eyed chocolate labrador puppy with a tendency to annoy sleeping cats.

Solutions like Molly, the slightly-cross eyed chocolate labrador puppy with a penchant for annoying sleeping cats.

Unfortunately, our situation is much worse: not only is there is a massive flock of somewhere between 25-30 individual, feral specimens residing in our back parking area, but we have the aforementioned Pyjama-Man standing on Sauron-like guard almost literally 24/7. From all evidence it appears when he and his wife are not either out on their balcony lobbing meat at the cats (and my car until I moved from my parking space to the street) or out there feeding them from a large bowl, they must simply withdraw to just behind the thin curtains and watch.

Nothing escapes their notice or suspicion and whenever someone walks into the territory it is only a short matter of time before he appears, suspiciously inspecting the path they took on the lookout for traps and reverting whatever changes were made (even cleaning the area) to their original cluttered state to provide disguised shelters for the cats. For instance my only effort so far to help the problem was to spray deterring eucalyptus oil along the fence. Sure enough, later that afternoon, he was out there with a hose (it’s mostly a concrete space) watering everything in sight and ranting loudly (though presumably he didn’t think I could hear him). Similar attempts (or perceived attempts) by other neighbours result in the search-and-destroy mission or an unending hosing down.

The situation is such that he has continuously been told not to feed the cats by his neighbours (though I avoid him), landlord and real estate, but his response to this is a confusing mix of pure denial, saying he’s only feeding one single cat he ‘owns,’ the phrase “this is the way it’s been done for 25 years”, or my favourite, resigned outrage at the fact that the ‘spirit of kindness’ is dead coupled with a sad, rant-filled token act of driving away the cats ‘for good.’ He has done this tirade twice in the past two months … Cats are still there. You see, like the humble shark, the PM is most active in his activities after dark, which is when one of these illogical aspects come to the fore. Like clockwork, our stealthy hero waits until the silent hour of 1am before going out for the main feeding sesh, but then proceeds to make all manner of cat-talk, clapping, splattering, bucket splashing and other assorted noises for a further hour. Even if I turn on all the house lights to indicate I’m still awake he still does not relent in his not-so-secret ritual.

Gosh he’s out there right now. And probably as you read this as well.

Now the cats themselves are not your typical strays, but are born and bred ferals; scared and defensive towards humans, not desexed (there have been three separate litters in the past two months) and the subject of many illnesses and afflictions. Were the kittens taken early enough they could be fostered out and lead long happy lives. Yet Pyjama Man bothers not with this; he cares not for their health, only their legion numbers. Futhermore, his veiled boasting of owning a gun and his very unsound mind, make it disturbingly unclear as to whether anyone else is allowed to take any sort of veterinary care of his ‘non-existent’ cats. I’ve overheard him telling another neighbour he’d ‘give his life for the cats.’ One thing is obvious – attempted trapping of cats for any desexing, fostering program will result in their immediate liberation, one way or another.

Caaaats. Caaaats. Cats-cats-cats-cats-Caaaats.

Caaaats. Caaaats. Cats-cats-cats-cats-Caaaats.

So yes, he’s illogical, uncommunicable, unrelenting, paranoid, possibly unstable and fostering a massive hoard of unhealthy and uncontrolled feral cats, getting in car engines, killing wildlife, and spraying everywhere to the extent that would stun the most experienced Melbourne Cup plumbing contractor .

Sigh. Any suggestions welcome, though keep in mind the unstable, uncommunicable, and unrelenting part! Something tells me we’re moving again.

Rant over, thank you for either sitting though it or storming off. 😀

Que Sol-fa, Sol-fa

Solfa and Solfege, or more accurately Sol-fa and Solfège, are the names of the two sides, teams and/or factions currently participating in one of the more one-sided conflicts in musical history. The Sol-fa-ites relentlessly wage a bitter and furious campaign of condemnation upon the peace-loving Solfege community, fuelled possibly and probably by feelings of inadequacy and also the fervour of their revered Hungarian forebears ringing in their ears. This post … I write this post not only in defence of the Solfegers, but in offence at the Sol-fa-ites, those fanatical zealots (as opposed to your indifferent, garden-variety zealots).

This is neither

The conflict is fundamentally between the fixed (Solfege) and the moveable (Solfa) Do (pronounced dough), yet even the spelling of Do (Doh for solfa) cannot be agreed upon. While both parties have distant medieval origins over this note-naming, fixed Do grew naturally and gradually out of this system, while the moveable version began abruptly as the musical love-child of Sarah Ann Glover and John Curwen. Before we go further let’s discuss what it’s all about:

What is a ‘Do’?

Well dear reader, that is the crux of the pickle. In fixed Do, the pitch of C is Do. In moveable Do, any pitch that is the tonic of the key is Do. Are you stirred into a rage by one of these options? If so congratulations – you are a Sol-fa-obsessed, irrational extremist. Don’t care? Fixed Do it is then.

Why does it matter?

Well dear reader, it all comes down to what you want to use it for. And by that I must add the disclaimer that most well-adjusted musicians never really find, or indeed look for, any practical use for such knowledge beyond passing it on.

Cumquat

If you use Solfege (fixed), it allows a simple and rapid singing of syllables – like reading note names but better – as opposed to saying “C sharp, E flat, D natural etc.” It does make singing relative intervals a little less conducive if the piece isn’t in C, so for instance, you’d probably have to know what a major 7th up from the So (G) sounds like if the piece was in G Major.

If you use Sol-fa (moveable), well this automatically takes care of it – if G was Do the major 7th interval is Do-Ti rather than So-Fi in fixed. But.

TANGENT

Most of the fiercest advocates of Sol-fa are those who learn in schools that base their teaching on Bartok and Kodály – particularly the latter’s method. I cannot but gaze like a puffin at the cumquat of irony that these (relatively mildly) modernist composers, who were alive and writing at the cusp of significant, irrevocable changes in tonal theory in the early 20th century, became representatives of the fundamentally tonal movable Do system. It’s as though they invented a car that runs exclusively on blue whale fat, and said invention becomes wildly and bafflingly popular. Soon, the proponents are spending all their time hooning around and shouting obscenities at the Solfege citizens in their electric hybrids, blissfully unaware that their fuel supply and cars are both about to come to a complete standstill.

END TANGENT

But. Moveable Do becomes starkly meaningless when there IS NO TONIC. C will always be C, so fixed Do is permanent – indeed all the chromatic notes are accounted for Do, Di, Re, Ri etc, and there’s room for microtones if you care inordinately. But moveable Solfa is self-limiting. Do you pick a random note if there is no Do? Why not choose C by default (or any other note for that matter) Yes. That ‘fixes’ the problem.

Beluga Wail

Artist’s depiction of typical Solfege/Solfa interaction

So dear Sol-fa-ites, give yourselves a nice hug, and the next time you meet someone who uses fixed Do or perhaps just doesn’t care about note-syllables as much as you do (aka: someone who uses fixed Do) before you slice, halve, crimp, carve, gut and starve your adversary, perhaps just smile and remember how patronising I’ve been to you.

Guest Post: Sing A Fakening

We are super-keen to have the amazingly witty Bonnie provide us with this first guest post!

Samuel Beckett once said that nothing is funnier than unhappiness.

Wise words

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”                  – Samuel Beckett

That should serve as a decent enough segue into how unhappy I am about certain musical adaptations of plays, and how I hope it will be an appropriately amusing and ranty guest blog for Semantic Marmot which, you will know as regular readers, is all about music, random images, and very occasionally, marmots.

If you know much about theatre from the 19th and 20th century and some of the bold statements therein, you enter a world of protest that ranges from fierce and shocking, to subtle and bittersweet, with a few bland imitators thrown in the cracks.

Frank Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen, better known to us as Spring Awakening, was one such fierce production which made clear the attitudes of the bourgeois community, in particular towards sex and education. The play is not an epic or a satire, but rather a gritty and morbid tale surrounding a few school children featuring masturbation, underage sex, abortion, rape and suicide. Not quite one for those fans of Legally Blonde, or the fifth instalment of the Wizard of Oz.

Also unlike those, Spring Awakening has been banned and censored many times since its publication. In the play, silence is so important to the storyline it is a character all on its own, like NYC in Sex and the City, only less idiotic. The silence of the adults, where their words would have saved lives, is of great importance. The unknown and the unknowing are key where children begin to live and behave dangerously as they are left to their own devices, ultimately leading to tragedy. The key thing to take away is how this silence is a catalyst to destruction by sexuality, rather than the more modern dangers of rock music and celebrity fetish.

We must relish the awkward silences in response to those metaphysical questions where we all know the answer, but cannot say it, and even if we did it would not alter the fate of the characters. Similar to our friends at the cinema yelling at the half naked blonde girl to ‘watch out for the killer lurking in the basement’, the movie would carry on, the girl would be stabbed, no tragedy would be averted. But when the tragedy is the point of the play or the cheap slasher movie, we just have to embrace that.

voldemorthug

So why, for the love of god, did someone feel the need to make this a rock musical?

I get it. Rock music, as I’ve said, is associated with youth rebellion, so that tired trope can easily be applied. But with a real understanding of Wedekind’s statement, the deafening quiet realism is enough to stir an audience with any real empathy or artistic appreciation of the words said, and unsaid. Adding the rock and roll musical element means everything will become over-explored, over-dramatic and dare I say it, dumbed down.

This isn’t to say that tragic theatrical plays cannot make great musicals, just look at Les Miserables. Most of the good ones actually do, even those more abrupt shocking pieces. But the difference is often how expertly they are put together, with the synergy of music and storyline expressing the characters as they were presented by the playwright (at the risk of intentional fallacy) and also how the production is later portrayed to an audience who is unfamiliar with the original text.

Büchner’s Woyzeck is a play which provocatively invokes the dehumanising element of war on a young man’s life and mental state. The brutal ‘working class tragedy’ was then made into an intense opera by Alban Berg, who himself was exposed heavily to the military. Berg was able to use music to present an appropriate and original avant garde production, free of classic techniques such as arias, highlighting individual characters with unique leitmotifs, while the expression of madness and alienation is amplified with the use of atonal music.

Candide, originally penned by Voltaire as an ironic statement about optimism and human misery, was transformed equally well into a musical by the great Leonard Bernstein, with help from many others with the libretto including Lillian Hellman and Stephen Sondheim. The production perfectly and uniquely mimics the attitude of the main character from Voltaire’s text, who frequently insists that happiness will always come, the world is truly good and everything is as it should be, all while falling witness (and victim) to violent crime, rape, theft, war and heartache.

And this

And this

All these scenes are played out on stage as they are in the original novella with the enhanced inclusion of ridiculously lighthearted and optimistic music to achieve the ironic juxtaposition that Voltaire intended. Think Gavroche’s death in Les Mis accompanied by some Mary Poppins tunes and you’ve got something along the same lines. A difficult thing to swallow and not necessarily appreciated at first, but critics soon came to realise its value.

Then we come back to Spring Awakening, doomed to become a dumbed down rock musical with cliche melodies and characters dressed as punks and rebels, portrayed by middle class players who delight in oozing sex appeal and perfecting their belt voice. The onus is no longer on the characters as good decent school children corrupted by ignorance, but rather a door to a semi-erotic playground where sex may as well be commonplace. The play’s point is that it’s disturbing – not just because it’s focus is taboo, but because it is explored by the young who know nothing of them.

les-patterson

Children having sex, children dying, children having abortions, children who are not impoverished or unable to attend school but who are simply misguided. This is not sexy. This is not the stuff of rock and roll and the underprivileged or wannabe models. This is not, as explained in the musical synopsis, about ‘the general trials, tribulations and exhilaration’ of the teen years.

The young girl, Wendla – who doesn’t even know where babies come from – falls pregnant, is forced to have an abortion and dies, yet she has to also be described as ‘beautiful’ meaning her sexual encounter and subsequent tragedy are almost purely a result of her looks, rather than her ignorance. Melchior, the confused and angry male protagonist, is apparently ‘brilliant and fearless’. His friend Moritz is only ‘distracted by puberty’ and can’t concentrate on anything, which actually means he is plagued by constant sexual urges, he does badly at schoolwork, leaving him alienated and suicidal.

The idea that the characters are considered beautiful and fearless is an insult to Wedekind’s expressionism, as it seem to ignore the real subtext. Many of those performing it prefer to trivialise the issues and instead try to make it look sexually provocative in between breaks to discuss the latest trends and instagramming their latte. They truly believe that Spring Awakening ‘celebrates the unforgettable journey from youth to adulthood with a power, poignancy, and passion that you will never forget.’ This almost makes me want to hurl myself into the nearest freezing river.

There’s a strong irony however, in how these middle class twenty somethings try to provoke audiences, as the world is now far too obsessed with sexuality. Lower classes are now potentially more at risk of ignorance with fewer opportunities for decent education, while middle class kids know too much about sex with exposure to mainstream media and societal pressures to be sexually mature at a younger age.

So, to those paying attention, the existence of this musical (at least how I have seen it presented by theatre groups – I’m hoping some might do it justice) makes a strong statement on how societal norms regarding sexuality and the young have changed, with sex now so openly discussed and practiced that whole new problems exist.

P.S. Something about marmots.

Samuel Marmot

Putting the ‘Phil’ in Ph.D

It's Good!

It’s Good! It’s Brahms Raising Raisin Brahms.

GUTEN TAG! (Enjoying your Raisin-Brahms?)

I have just emerged from a rather trippy and viciously-cyclic period of PhD proposal development, hence the lack of posts in the last couple of months. It is in many ways a huge leap of faith finding an interesting and relevant topic (especially in a music-world heavily populated by scholarly types) that hasn’t yet been written about for no good reason.

Whenever I got close to narrowing a field and finding there was little existing research previously, I felt like being in the proverbial room of replaced-monkeys with the banana up a ladder that no-one is touching from second generation fear of the cold water spray but no-one actually knows why. If you don’t know that story I won’t go into it, but I just did.

In any case, my frustrations lurched between “Damn, this is a good topic but someone’s already written about it” and “Damn, no-one has written about this topic – there must be a reason why it’s not valid.” So in the end a leap of faith was required and I am presently in mid-leap… hoping there will be solid ground with no natural predators or environmental hazards on the other side. Just lots of fruit and chocolate.

Along the way I encountered some interesting PhD stereotypes. It is often tempting for ‘pure musicologists’ (aka people who write about music but have no/little musical experience) to end up with an absurdly specific and useless topic only tangentially concerned with music. Topics like:

Not much it turns out.

Not much it turns out.

“The histrionic effects of Franz Joseph Haydn’s brother Michael’s slow sonata movements for harpsichord on the emotional development of hatching red swamp crayfish.”

“Variations on the double constrictor knot formed in ipod headphones by accident in adolescent male coat pockets from 2005 to 2008”

“Why I like Bolognese”

Another recurring PhD type is from composers and more-aged-than-I performers who are lucky enough to draw on their experience and/or folio work to write about themselves. While this would indeed be a fascinating exercise my own effort would most likely turn into:

“Writing a PhD dissertation: An auto-ethnographical and self-aware study on itself”

Perhaps though the most frustrating variety tends to come from those undergoing PhD programs around the beginning of the modern scholarship era – around 1970. Those fortunate ones were at liberty to take advantage of a generally unexplored musical world, often with such reckless abandon as to propel themselves at entire fields in a single sitting, or able to simply just present very basic and fundamental facts as ground-breaking research, leaving future scholars to scavenge feebly in the muddied waters, eking out a merge existence on whatever niche topics can be found. Truly 1970’s scholars are the carp of the musical world, with dissertations such as:

“How to play the pianoforte well”

“I got here first! An analysis of everything ever by George Gershwin with specific focus on 90 other important American composers. Acknowledge me”

“Music: A summary”

All of it.

All of it.

I’m just am glad it’s over now. Many apologies (to those who accidentally stumble upon this website looking for marmot photos – you know who you are) for the delay and hopefully I’ll have a little more time and inspiration soon.

Marmots and their Orchestral Rationale: Part II

INTRO: They say that pigeons develop odd and repetitive behaviours (such as hopping on one foot) should you feed them pellets at random intervals, presumably made of seed or some such food that pigeons like. The theory here is that they believe whatever they happened to be doing at the time triggered the pellet dispensing and if they manage to do it again (in just the right manner) then they will get more pellets. When the next one inevitably arrives it simply reinforces the behaviour and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

HYPOTHESIS: Anyway, it has been over two years since the early days of this blog and I thought it’s a spectacular time to revisit my inaugural rant about orchestral repertoire. I actually had attempted this about one year ago but it remained in draft from and I think now time and some more far-reaching data can provide a three-dimensional-time-instalment on the topic! Basically, we will look at the concert series for 2013 not only of the original Australian orchestra but three separate seasons of another very well-known orchestra in the UK and see what’s what.

METHODOLOGY: The pieces played fall into categories of:

  1. Works by popular European Composers
  2. Works by unpopular European Composers
  3. Works by popular non-European Composers
  4. Works by unpopular non-European Composers

A word from the recapping porpoise:

Recapping Porpoise

The definitions of European and non-European is quite simple but the former includes Russia (as part of a highly integrated ‘Western’ music culture). The definition of ‘popular’ I probably defined earlier in my last rationale post, but for apathy’s sake will re-make it up here and then for obsessive-compulsiveness’s sake compare afterwards anyway, (to test my own consistency).

Popular composer (My 2013 Definition): “A composer who is mainstream enough to be known by a regular concert going audience and can be expected to appear regularly (anywhere from extremely frequently to once every few years) in an orchestral concert series.”

Popular composer (My 2011 Definition): “A well-known composer (Beethoven, Mozart, etc) that a typical Classical concert-going audience could expect to hear every few years or so.”

Close enough! Anyway now we are all on the same (web)page here are the results:

RESULTS:

For the original Australian Orchestra:

Original Orchestra ANew Orchestra AWell that’s slightly more promising 70.3% of the series (down from 81.8%) made up of  European classical standards.

Now let’s take a peak of three 6-month seasons of the UK orchestra.

January 2012 to June 2012

1st Season Orchestra B

July 2012 to December 2012

2nd Season Orchestra B

January 2013 to June 2013

3rd Season Orchestra B

This is a little bleaker…

Just a little bit

The percentages chronologically here are 93.4%, 90.4% and 85.5%. Although it’s a slight downward trend the average is still 89.8% of the repertoire is typical European, and in one and a half years only one non-popular, non-European composer is featured.

CONCLUSIONS: I’ve been wondering a little recently about what would happen if orchestras (or classical artists in general) dropped the facade of being part of a ‘living tradition’ and dedicated themselves only to playing what is considered the classical music canon. With this repertoire already making up around 90% of a season (or much more if you include the popular non-Europeans) I doubt the regular concert-going audiences would complain or even notice if it was upped to 100%.

It seems to me that when these orchestras explore or innovate its out of begrudging tokenism and perhaps it would be healthy to say/admit “Wait, this is for all intents and purposes a museum-culture (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and you should go elsewhere if you’re not a part of that.” I think modern composers deserve better then to be lining up for meagre pellet distribution from a culture that is demonstrably against them… it is not good for one’s mental state. Or maybe perhaps what I mean is they should rebuke the insinuation that they are the latest edition of the classical ‘tradition’ and instead be seeking to be relevant to other groups who may be more interested rather than forcing new things on a audience obsessed with the past.

CODA:  The humble pigeon is actually quite exceptional for a commonplace bird*, unlike the ibis, which is unexceptional for a much-worshiped deity symbol. Look them up. Yes, both of them. And remember, nothing says ‘Deutsch touristischen’ more emphatically** than excitedly taking photos of the colloquial dump-birds.

You can even eat them!

*You can even eat them!

**This is not strictly true… a LOT of things say ‘Deutsch touristischen’ emphatically, not least themselves.

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.