Sharks on an Ideal Plane

There gets to a point when writing a PhD chapter, when you are on your third gin and tonic for the evening, that one should turn one’s attention outwardly. I’d like very much to share thoughts about my research but the very first thing they teach you in PhD school is that no-one else is interested in your topic, by virtue of being so obscure that it bears no relevance to the lives of others.

Instead I’ll do some calculations.

It seems to me rather odd, in this age of missing planes and controversial shark attacks, that interested parties (airlines and environmentalists, etc) frequently employ statistics to reinforce the fact that these events are exceptionally rare. And yes they are, by-and-large, though perhaps the most spectacular evidence that all is not what it seems, lies in the massive differences of the massive orders of magnitude in such material. And if one person is fit to recognise improper uses of statistics it is I, largely through my own severe transgressions.


Had I used the right shark, I could have called this picture ‘Tiger Airways’ and been appropriate on so many levels.

Earlier this year I came across a promotional poster actually pitting plane crashes and sharks against each other – in favour of sharks I believe (something to the order of hundreds/thousands times more likely to crash than be consumed), which piqued my interest as these are two of my more intimate* fears, and also as I touched upon with that shark-toaster comparison a while ago, I realised that there are far, far, far, far too many factors in plane-shark relations to effectively compare them.

So let’s compare them.

* By intimate I mean that the number of dreams I’ve had involving planes and plane crashes are literally equal. I think become so accustomed I’d be super-demure if I was involved in an actual fiery descent. And also I’ve had a youthful encounter with a carpet shark in the wild and watched Jaws a little early.

Probability of death in an air accident if you never fly and permanently reside in a bomb shelter or other secure underground complex: Approximately 0

Probability of death via shark attack if you never go in or near any sizeable body of water, nor be near a shark in transit, nor otherwise encounter a shark: Approximately 0

Probability to ensure a plane accident (1): Assuming consecutive 1 hour flights you’d need 114.077 years according to some calculations. Given there are a handful of verified people who have lived past that age, you could potentially spend your life working towards that particular goal.

Probability to ensure a shark encounter (1): Assuming 1 million life-threatening sharks (according to my last ‘study’) each with a 5km blood detection range (78.54km^2) equally spaced, makes for a 78 537 816 km squared area of ocean currently under shark-veillance; meaning 23.42% of the world’s oceans are currently detectable by sharks. Totally inaccurate, but let’s go with it. Assuming a cruising speed of 8km/hour in straight lines, it would take our imaginary shark formation 19.635 hours to leisurely cover an entirely new 23.42%, and 84 hours to complete detecting all the earth’s oceans. So if you were adrift in the ocean, basically in the time for an equally-spaced shark to ‘certainly’ detect you (3.5 days) you’d be dying from, ironically, thirst.

We're going to need a bigger boa. :D

We’re going to need a bigger boa. 😀

So in fanciful summary, both planes crashes and shark attacks are something you could (I guesstimate) live to reasonably expect, but only towards the very end of your life in each situation. However, if you took to human shark-baiting in convenient instalments, it would become much more attainable, and there is probably a strong correlation between amount of human-shark numbers/proximity and attacks, whereas flights are more quantitative and can only take finite passengers (one hopes). Anyway, the moral is that both these situations could conceivably become either a statistical certainty OR a statistical impossibility, depending on person, country, airline choices, frequency, stupidity, rugged determination, weather, preferred swimming times, etc, etc, etc.

So don’t.

Seventeen Fifty-Two: A Story of Literal Musical Growth.

Seeing writhing masses of musicians graduating each year, like lemmings into the void of uncertainty, makes me wonder just where their little corpses wash up.

We can probably never know for sure, but one can guestimate the extent of this movement, so I did some quick calculations.

Beethoven as I Knew Him

Ludwig Van as I Knew Him (Musician No. 148393)

Verily, it appears by averaging undergraduate graduation rates from American conservatories* (though they significantly vary between 40-85%), they generally settle around the 65% mark. Furthermore cohort size varies dramatically too, but let’s under-ball and assume cohorts of 50 are taken in per year – meaning 32.5 graduates are churned out at the end per music school.

*I chose America because there’s a large diversity of schools to average plus there’s a good public-knowledge website for graduation rates…

So thanks to the appropriately titled list on wikipedia I counted about 549 schools of music around the world. This means about 17843 new music graduates every year. Let’s “assume” this number will remain consistent for now.

The average lifespan of countries with music schools is approximately 79 years so if graduates graduate before the age of 23, by the time the first batch get old and die all at once on their 79th birthday (which they all share), and at which point equilibrium will be reached (i.e. as many new graduates as dying ones) then there will be the tantalising number of 999 208 music graduates in the world!

Assuming this is retrospectively the case for living memory, and as we made relatively low assumptions in the first place (some major university cohorts are in the thousands!), one can probably say with a comfortable yet vague sense of accuracy that there are over a million ‘trained’ musicians in the world at the moment.

This leads to a more interesting aspect:

Trained Musician Population Over Time.

The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia is apparently the world’s oldest musical institution, founded in 1585. Before this point there were zero musical ‘graduates’.

With our two points of data (and you only ever need two, right?) we can plot a nice graph with a power regression as follows:

Musicians over time

Musicians over time

So, according to the regression y=x^2.280997725 the number of the graduate musicians will reach 5 million before the year 2400. Unfortunately this rate is considerably slower than population growth models, so musicians will ultimately become less and less of an overall percentage over time. By dividing a human population growth formula against the above regression, we can calculate that at the moment there is one music graduate for every 7233 people in the world.

Yet in 100 years the ratio will be one musician for every 17457 people. Curiously, according to this method (and it’s totally way off) the most densely musician-populated year in history was 1752, where there were 1778.55 people per trained musician.

1752 was a leap year, eye-gouging was declared a criminal act and Muzio Clementi was born. Clearly it just went downhill from there.

Compiled Clementi

Muzio Clementi: The Beethoven of his era…

Euston, we have a problem…

I like the London Underground.


Surprisingly, Alsatians are the world’s only venomous canine. The male possesses a poison spur on their back legs. Though rarely fatal, it can incapacitate an adult human.

Hailing as I do from Brisbane, where the train network is fundamentally sadistic, one soon develops an acute sense of fear relating to the reliability of the service. There, it is apparent there is a literal “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy relating to train failures, and a half hour journey can quickly grow into a four hour upwards ordeal while lumbering replacement buses are rounded up to wind themselves along the winding backstreets of the outer Brisbane suburbs. One learns the meaning of term ‘languish’ from the experience.

Verily, even if nothing goes wrong the bleak infrequency of literally every train line makes it costly to miss, (emotionally mainly). Between services fierce Alsatians are released upon those still on the platform who didn’t make the train in order to thin the numbers and discourage future tardiness.

They know the deal

Die in open air, the way nature intended. Ask your Druggist about Rat Bis=Kit today! IT’S PACKED IN BOXES!

The London Underground, for all its faults, is a fascinating creature. Two years since I first met it and it is still a pure joy to invariably have only two minutes to wait at most between trains and I always raise an eyebrow at the businessmen who come bounding down the escalators. They fling themselves wildly like a rat on a biscuit at the people-mass crowded into carriages, rather than wait a minute for the next train already approaching. It’s like a freaking conveyor belt, so calm yourselves!

In any case, I’ve wondered with all the stations so close together and with the time it takes to get from the street to the platform, at what distance it becomes faster and cheaper to walk. Furthermore, factoring in the fare costs saved (as well as when delays are in effect), there should be a rough solution to be found.

Some Assumptions:

  • £6.31/h is the UK minimum wage
  • £2.10 – Zone 1 (Oyster Card) trip on the Underground (£4.50 for a single ticket)
  • I’ll make walking speed 6km/h (5km/h is average but you technically need to do fast walking to equate to moderate exercise).
  • Time to get between the street and a station (a rough guess that varies considerably) 2 mins.
  • Time waiting for a train 2 mins.

So. Those are the values. So basically by choosing to walk and not paying a fare, you are effectively getting paid to walk, thus reducing the time-saving nature of the tube.

At a basic level by not paying £2.10 you are buying yourself 19 minutes and 58 seconds of walking time at minimum wage. This is 1996.83 metres!

Seriously. They will even die trying to seek water. It must not happen!

Seriously. They will even die attempting to seek water. It must not happen!

Okay, so that’s almost two kilometres. But remember, by not even going to the station you are saving a little more time. Lets combine the time it takes to get down there and up again and also the waiting time as 6 minutes total (at a rough conservative estimate of course, it depends on station layout). This costs £0.631.

That extra cost saved expands your walking range to 2596.86 metres!! (Taking 25 minutes and 58 seconds to complete)

Also, underground trains travel at an average of 33km/hour which also costs time (though about 5.5 times less than walking). Taking that into account costs £0.0191 per minute relative to walking. This will often be quite negligible and depends on where you want to travel to, but follows an exponential equation.

In the instance above it should take the train about 4.72 minutes to travel the distance you walked (£0.069). This allows for another 65.59 metres of walking. (2662.45 metres!) This additional walking distance buys you another 8.38 seconds for the train to catch up but lets not bother.

Zone 1 MapWith the above diagram; move the blue dot (and shaded red area) to wherever you are and if the station you intend to travel to is within the red outer circle you are financially and time effectively better off walking. Another way to look at it might be that if you’re going vertically in Zone 1 it’s usually cheaper to walk.

A few notes:

  • For delays: Add 31.67 metres for each minute. For instance if there are 10 minute delays on a line, your maximum radius expands another 316.67 metres.
  • If you need to change lines: (say another 5 mins involved including waiting) add another 833 metres to your radius per change required.
  • If you rather enjoy walking vigorously everywhere and cancelled your £40/month gym membership: (that you happened to be using to get your 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week) the resultant savings add about 1664 walking metres per day.
  • THUS: If you saved on exercise costs and had a line change in your intended route you can walk 5200 metres more efficiently overall than if you used the London Underground (basically the diameter of the original red circle instead of the radius).
  • This would: likely spill over into Zone 2 which would automatically give you another 665 metres due to the increased fare.
  • Finally: if you brought a ticket (£4.50) instead of an Oyster card, you could walk 4734 metres (and that’s just the base figure).

The London Underground Logo. I drew this left handed? Can you believe I’m not left handed?

There you go. I like the London Underground.

P.S. This is my 50th blog post!

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:


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.

Death at a Funeral March

We’ve all heard the stories, but how likely is an audience death during a concert?

Well, listen closely.

According to the UK Office for National Statistics the fashionable mortality rates (for 2010) are roughly as follows:

Although the number of deaths are well recorded, we do have to be selective and take into account the fact that only ‘sudden non-accidental deaths’ are likely to occur within the gentile confines of the concert hall; thus ruling out things like homicide and bear-maulings. Also nothing that would have prevented a person going from the concert hall in the first place.

With my decidedly non-medical opinion I made use of this handy mortality statistics graph to work out that there are around 133963 potentially ‘sudden non-accidental’ (hereafter referred to as ‘sudden’) deaths each year (well…2009 and in the UK). Thus accounting for about 27.264% of all deaths.

Next we have to make an assumption that these are spread evenly across all age groups because I am unashamedly lazy. Having achieved this, we can work out the probable numbers of sudden death for each age group. We get this:

Actual figures are a bit fuzzy for accurate age-demographics so let’s approximate and say it was equal (6264100 people each) except for the 80+ group which is significantly less – let’s guess half as populous (3132050 people each). Now we can say the average likelihood of someone dying in a given year:

…and in a given hour in that year:

(For example, if you have 47662 men over age 80 in a room for an hour, one of them will die of sudden causes.)

Now in terms of the average concert age there is obviously much variation, but generally there seems to be a vague consensus that the median age of classical concert audiences is over 50, with a 10-year study of classical radio showing listeners have a median age over 65. For this study I will assume that 60 is the average age and that half any given audience will be in these higher risk categories.

So in an audience of 1000 watching a concert of an hour, here are your mortality statistics (last table I promise!)

Ergo(!) there is 0.5349% chance (roughly one in 200) that for every thousand people per hour at a classical concert, there will be someone in the audience who does not applaud at the end.

I can see you there, you know


Thank you for bearing with me! Now for some fun facts 😀

  • If you assume that everyone at your concert is over 60 and half are over 80, there is a 2.6468% chance of fatality! (1 in 38 concerts).
  • If a 1000-people strong concert contained something appropriate like the Chopin Piano Sonata No.2 there is a 0.0007429% chance that someone will die in the 5 seconds of silence before the famous funeral march. (1 in 134607 concerts)
  • Similarly, the odds of that person being the pianist (if they are under 60) are 1 in 112.700 trillion.
  • Assuming the performers are under 60, the odds of any performer dying during a concert is roughly 1 in every 156.5 billion. Musicians dying on stage thusly has happened before; it’s not as unlikely as you might think given that there are now a lot of musicians in the world and each of them putting in a lot of performance hours.
  • In Pablo Casal’s questionable* autobiography he mentions an orchestra in the Caucasus Mountains in the Soviet Union made up ENTIRELY of male members over 100 years of age. In the UK over 90s are currently 11% of the over 80 population according to the Office for National Statistics. According to a very approximate regression from this data, it seems that over 100’s die at a rate of 10% a year (1 every 876.6 hours). Therefore, in this 70-piece, 100+ Aged orchestra, 1 in every 125 concerts would experience a musician fatality.
  • Alternately, in their rehearsals (if they were weekly and two hours long) it would happen about once a year.

So there you have it. Highly inaccurate statistics but at least you get a rough idea.

I salute your perseverance!

* I say questionable about Casals’ autobiography because, like Grizzly Man, you read/watch the story and end up liking him less and less, realising that here is a person who doesn’t realise that they are fundamentally unreasonable, and in this case, a massive diva. If you don’t believe me the whole thing is here. Or one particular excerpt where he refuses to play because the conductor doesn’t like the music and then drags Debussy into the argument and finds himself isolated in his opinion:

The conductor, Gabriel Pierne, and I had agreed some weeks previously that I would play the Dvorak concerto. Shortly before the rehearsal was to start, Pierne came to my dressing room to go over the score and discuss my approach to the work. Something in his manner struck me as odd-he seemed almost uninterested in what we were discussing, but I thought he was probably preoccupied with other matters. Then, all at once, he tossed the score down and exclaimed with a grimace, “What a ghastly piece of music!” I thought at first he was being facetious-I couldn’t imagine his really meaning such a thing. He was, after all, a composer himself who had studied under Massenet and Cesar Franck. But he added, “It’s hardly worth playing. It’s not really music at all.” He said it in such a way that there was no doubting he was serious.

I stared at him incredulously. “Are you out of your mind?” I said. “How can you talk that way about such a magnificent work?” Didn’t he know, I asked, that Brahms considered it a classic and said he himself would have composed a concerto for the cello if he’d known such effects were possible?

Pierne shrugged. “What of it? Was Brahms infallible? You’re enough of a musician to know how bad the music is.”

I was almost speechless with anger. “If that’s the way you feel about the work,” I said, “then you’re clearly not capable of conducting it. Since I happen to love the music, I couldn’t take part in its desecration. And I won’t. I refuse to play.”

Members of the orchestra began pressing around us. Someone said the hall was full, and it was time to go onstage. Pierne told me, “Well, we have no choice. You’ll have to play.”

“On the contrary,” I said, “I’m going home.”

Pierne rushed onstage. He stood there with his hands raised, his hair and beard disheveled. He declared dramatically, “Pablo Casals refuses to play for us today!”

A great commotion broke out in the hall. I wanted to explain what had happened, but I couldn’t make myself heard above the din. People started crowding onto the stage, arguing and protesting that they had paid for their tickets. I caught sight of the composer Claude Debussy standing nearby. I told him about the situation. “Ask Debussy,” I said to Pierne, “if he thinks any artist could perform under the circumstances.”

To my astonishment, Debussy shrugged and said, “If you really wanted to play, you could.”

I replied, “That may be your opinion, Monsieur Debussy, but I can tell you I haven’t the slightest intention of doing so.”

I got my things together and left the hall.

Profound.** Also, his highly unimaginative composition as a 20th century musician is of a level of classical inanity even Haydn would have turned his nose up at.

**I do not mean profound at all.

Shark/Toast Relativity

Toasters vs. Sharks… Their complex relationship has been hinted at both in documentaries and articles, with the outcome generally being that toasters are considered the more dangerous of the two. Statistically this is correct… Let’s assume the above sources are accurate; a global maximum of 15 fatal shark attacks per year compared to 300 fatal toaster ‘incidents’ per year (down from 3000 when first introduced!). It is therefore evident that you are at least twenty times more likely to die when pfaffing about in the kitchen, or wherever you keep your toaster: I won’t really judge you on this.

But I am uneasy with this statistic for a number of reasons:

Kitty of the Apocalypse

  1. I have personally never been killed by a toaster and I know how to use one.
  2. Were I in the ocean or aquarium with a large-and-dangerous-enough shark I would feel very self-conscious
  3. A lot of electrocution happens from misuse, rather than an insatiable drive to fulfil an insatiable appetite.
  4. There are a lot more toasters than sharks.
  5. Toasters have only been around for a century or so… Sharks considerably longer.
  6. Proper documentation on shark attacks is a relatively recent thing, giving them a rough 500 millenium headstart on transforming humans into shark noms.
  7. People generally use their toasters more than swim in the ocean.
  8. Toasters don’t really seem that sinister

Point Four interests me particularly. While there are no accurate figures of populations for any shark species (many are endangered or threatened and numbers have generally been declining over the last hundred years) and with great white estimates alone ranging from hundreds to thousands,  I did manage to find some toaster statistics: 15.3 million made in 2006 (an increase of 3.38% from 2005). Apparently toasters also last six to eight years and that means those made in 2006 are probably still around, so this cumulates (with the respective increases) to about 99.9 million toasters in the world. I would say that is a very conservative estimate, as this figure would only provide one toaster for every three people in North America alone.

Admire the interesting avant-garde design.

Anyway, that is all fine and dandy. What about dangerous shark populations? Considering the species depletion and that most sharks need to be adult and over 2 metres to be a general ‘threat’ I can only guess wildly that maybe the number would be somewhere around a million. Probably more, possibly less.

For the purposes of this totally inaccurate and non-scientific study, that means toasters outnumber sharks a hundred to one. Therefore if you matched the toaster and shark populations, both at say 100 million and assumed fatality frequency was proportionate, sharks would then be responsible for 1500 deaths a year; five times that of the toaster.

Of course, this is highly unlikely because if shark attacks were that high I’m sure there’d be a much greater human aversion to being in their environment; causing a corresponding decrease. But you know, that’s logic for you.

“Five times that of your toaster”

Similarly, time spent around/using toasters are subject to debate (Point Seven). Is it unreasonable to say that everyone who has a toaster uses it? However, not everyone has access to shark-infested water (which admittedly, is most water), the ability to swim in it, the time to go to it regularly, and the fundamental desire to go in it. If we assume a toaster is used once a day for 3 minutes (18 hours and 15 minutes a year) you would also have to clock up the same amount of annual risky swimming time for the comparison to be fair, and no, this does NOT mean you can be behind shark nets either, or take other protective measures. You wouldn’t wear insulated gloves and a rubber suit when handling toast now would you? Being in the natural environment is essential! (Though if you do use a fork to get things out of an operating toaster, it might also stand to reason that you should do your swimming in a seal costume and around the RING OF DEATH off Seal Island) Also, you can use your toaster anytime, but in some parts of the world people can only feasibly swim in the summer months, translating around an hour a week in the summery third of the year to offset your toaster-time.

I doubt this is realistic in general; obviously the actual number varies dramatically from person to person as it is often a lifestyle factor. Let’s say the average person spends two hours a year in the ocean (on a suitable equatorial holiday or something): nine times less than required. If there’s a correlation that would mean shark attacks would leap to 136 a year, reaching almost half the toaster-death amount.

Don’t let his playful appearance deceive you!


15 current fatal shark attacks a year x 100 (to equal toaster numbers) x 9 (to equal time around toasters)= 13 500 Deaths per year.

Therefore SHARKS are proportionately FORTY-FIVE (45) times more lethal than toasters

Also bear in mind that these are just the fatal attacks. According to the above sources, fatal attacks are only around 17.6% of documented ‘attacks’ and this would cause 76 500 people to find themselves in some sort of uncomfortable sharky experience. (255 times more likely than their toaster-death scenario)

The moral here is: If you want to compare toasters and sharks and how big a threat they pose to humanity, make sure they exist in similar numbers and we use/annoy them to similar degree.

Moral Fibre.

If comparisons of such statistics are ignored then it is possible to come up with all sorts of obscure or misleading truths that provide both a false sense of security in situations of actual danger, while simultaneously managing to inspire a paranoid approach to everyday activities and objects that becomes the daily sensationalist ambrosia of the trash-media.

That said all the above calculations are scientifically useless. So, you know, ignore them.

On Listing Things except Sharks

Dear Reader,

I started this article quite some time ago but it got too ranty so I abandoned the idea and it joined the ranks of unpublished posts which tend to either be extremely short/blank or excessively long. Upon re-reading it recently I thought it did have a degree of merit, so attempted to streamline it to cater to your probably fickle attitudes and laughable attention spans. 😛

PART 1: The Survey

Detroit Apparently. Lions.

I should be off doing other things. Pressing things. But instead happened to happen upon this list. JUST CLICK ON THE DAMN LINK TO SEE WHAT IT IS I’M TALKING ABOUT, OH NEVER MIND YOU IGNORED IT ANYWAY. OK FINE. BUT YOU KNOW WORDPRESS RECORDS OUTBOUND LINKS SO IF YOU DO READ THIS POST AND YOU DON’T READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE I CAN TELL AND I DO IN FACT JUDGE YOU, THE READER. by Anthony Tommasini from the New York Times on the top 10 greatest classical composers of all time.

Upon reading I felt heavily depressed and refused to recycle for several days. They were:

  • Bach
  • Beethoven
  • Mozart
  • Schubert
  • Debussy
  • Stravinsky
  • Brahms
  • Verdi
  • Wagner
  • Bartok

It seems in choosing such a list Tommasini merely looked at whoever had the longest articles in any standard ‘Who’s Who of Composers’ book. His justifications are often misinformed and rather perversely he states:

“I think what I was up to was more precisely nailed by a reader who said that I placed a high value on ‘innovation.’ … Take Debussy, for example. He may not have written that many works, but he changed how music was thought of. He said, in effect, ‘Here is another way to organize time, to make harmony, to conceive color.'”

Well. While I address the manneristic Debussy later in this post, it seemed to me that the characteristic of innovation seemed to be consistently overlooked in the list. Choosing by ‘lasting greatness’ here is really another phrase for ‘popularity en masse because the music is nice, famous and classical sounding.’ True innovation is not necessarily ‘wildly popular’ in its day.

Even the reader’s comments were inane. Endless bickering about how criminal it was to leave out their Tchaikovsky and Haydn and Mahler and Chopin. The irony being they were so limited in their scope – and blatantly oblivious to other composers – that should this list be a top 25, it would pretty much cover 95% of composers mentioned in comments. Perhaps I will devise some sort of table for this study… T’would be worth it to get the actual percentage – yet I’m pressed for time, so might leave it for a couple of days… Ok, it’s later and I’ve gone and done it: The figure, based on 166 of the 866 comments is actually 78% (73% if you include random and obviously-intentionally-controversial-but-not-really-valid-one-off suggestions like John Lennon). In other words, adding an additional 15 composers would satisfy 78% of commenters! Still, I think that upholds my tossed-off guess quite well. Furthermore a top 30 list (five extra composers) would be 87% (81%).

What does this mean? Well it implies that basically thirty composers made 9/10ths of everything worth listening to.

PART 2: The List

Eye of the Tigre

The concept of Top Ten-ing most things, except sharks, is useless and subjective at best. So here’s my TOP SEVEN view and subsequent justifications. (Tommasini’s list only included dead composers – but I will not use that limitation should the need arise: A great composer is a great composer. I’m writing this as I go. PS: Having written it I didn’t end up using living composers anyway.) But I mean what is great anyway?

No.1: Charles Ives. With no doubt. Not only did he foreshadow a vast number of 20th Century innovations – including the ones attributed to others, he was an Insurance CEO (also making contributions recognised today) a millionaire in today’s currency, writing music in his spare time (as well as many philosophical writings), and made all of his achievements in relative isolation and amidst a cultural climate of complete resistance and disdain to his music (and it still generally is I could argue). Still, his music is possibly among the most stylistically diverse possible, ranging from extreme tonality to, Classicism, to radical experimentation as wild as anything today, and uniquely often combining this stylistic diversity within single works.

Additionally his energy and passion to art and life in general is staggering by human standards, and his aesthetics are of such complexity and depth that he was basically a school of thought in himself. Furthermore, his greatest works: the Fourth Symphony, as well as the Concord Sonata, transcend the scope and breadth of Beethoven in the 9th and the Hammerklavier respectively, an achievement that should by itself in theory place him among the greatest composers. Finally his compositional life ended gradually after a stroke around 1925 or so (Though he lived until 1954) so he had a life as a ‘composer’ for only 50 years. No other composer to my knowledge achieved so much with such a severe handicap – Beethoven comes close with the onset of deafness – but he worked as a composer, had patronage and a also modicum of audience appreciation.

No.2: Percy Grainger. The Australian version of Ives in many regards, and still more – again foreshadowing a vast number of 20th Century innovations (oddly enough, usually different ones to Ives) so that between the two, they pretty much account for most of the 20th Century. Perversely, they are both left out or at least marginalised, Ives not as much as Grainger. For example, while Anthony Tommasini waxes lyrical about Bartok being:

“an ethnomusicologist whose work has empowered generations of subsequent composers to incorporate folk music and classical traditions from whatever culture into their works, and as a formidable modernist who in the face of Schoenberg’s breathtaking formulations showed another way, forging a language that was an amalgam of tonality, unorthodox scales and atonal wanderings”

…his ignorance in forgetting that Grainger was roaming the English countryside similarly collecting folk songs BEFORE the ‘real’ composer Bartok, and integrating them into his music is palpable.
Grainger suffered from the curse of popularity, and also of notoriety. Being a famous concert pianist (like Ives a full-time non-compositional career) his popular fame today rests on a small number of folk-based minatures, leading performers and audiences alike to smile and say “Oh yes, Grainger. Nice light music. Not serious though” before proceeding to quoting the plethora of rumours (many distorted, or plainly untrue) about his character. It was true he was an eccentric, but much of his life was taken out of context, and other parts conveniently ignored – but that is an thesis worth of debate in itself. But musicians then totally disregard the remaining 98% (I will do a similar study for this) of his vast output – including ironically his large-scale and most innovative compositions.

Grainger not only employs folk music, a vast variety of world influences, atonality and his own “free music” (a life-time project as avant-garde as integral serialism, freeing music from notation), electronic experiments, aleatoric (chance) music (40 years before John Cage),  harmonic advances AHEAD of Tommasini’s Debussy (Grainger Quote on Debussy’s harmonies: “Just one of the trees in my forest.”) and then beyond, into worlds of atonality and incredible dissonance reconciled, like Bartok, with folk idioms, yet he did so in complete isolation, whilst being well aware of and documenting his advances against the slower Western Schools. Furthermore, he invented the modern concert orchestra – with an equal role for extended percussion, developed the role of the orchestral piano, the modern wind orchestra, and created innovative concepts such as elastic scoring. He also arranged a great number of his and other composer’s works.

One scholar, on comparing him to Ives, suggested that of the two, Grainger was the more artistic. And fundamentally this statement has substance – Grainger is unabashedly joyful, characterful, colourful and passionate, even accessible, but with integrity and sincerity. For a “Modernist” composer this is exceptionally rare, and makes it extremely difficult for musicians who don’t take it seriously to perform convincingly and subsequently come to love it. His style and manner disregard and questions many modern conventions and it is through such pioneering eccentrics that the world is truly shaped.

3: Ludwig Van Beethoven: No explanation really required. A Transcendentalist worthy of respect. And he is still not in short supply of it. Developed within himself a new era, and was the foundation for much of the Romantic period. Maybe take a look at his lieder repertoire though – it’s not done enough and Schubert is done too much.

4: J.S. Bach: I also agree. Bach has been a foundation for all the above composers. And they all demonstrate a thorough knowledge and usage of counterpoint. Bach, however, worked as a full time composer and had a relatively event-free life sitting around in Protestant Germany, hence the No.4 position. Were he deaf, working primarily as an accountant or court jester, and had his music publicly and ritually  jeered at by patronising masses, perhaps I’d rank him higher. Still. Respecting Bach.

5: John Cage: Like Grainger, suffering from the curse of notoriety in the form of 4’33”. Not many have bothered looking past it, unfortunately. One of the greatest innovative composers and aestheticians who not only questioned what music fundamentally is, but produced creative works encompassing a vast variety of elements and ideas. As a musical thinker and an ‘outsider’ to music he openly aimed to bring down the final barrier between music and sound, to liberate music from the keyboard via electronics and percussion, and he did it with practicality and a sense of humour. It’s curious how people reacted initially to his ideas as ‘not music’ and I can still hear the echoes from the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica.

6: Richard Wagner: Who else could single handedly and almost universally reform opera across the world? An unbelievably magnetic personality commanding almost unprecedented resources for a ‘musician’ and consistently creating some of the greatest and most feared operas from scratch and humble beginnings as a nobody. Not only that, but they went beyond operas towards ‘total works of art ‘- transcending Wagner from mere composer to who-knows-what. Even creating a new exclusive breed of operatic singer, with roles of such demanding calibre as to actually have killed them off occasionally. Although an egomaniac, I think Wagner’s case is unique in that his ego and self-belief was matched by his output. In other words, he delivered.

7: Leonard Bernstein: Very few composers matched Bernstein’s absolute excellence in all fields, although Grainger was similar in this regard. Still, how many great musical thinker-composers-conductors-pianists-musical educators (with fully fledged professional careers in each and every one of these fields) also produce musicals such as Westside Story? The theatrics and often advanced musical language of his major compositions and productions show an impressively talented “all-round” human being who outshines certain European composers who devoted their entire lives to one narrow branch of the arts.

Part 3: The End

and Bears.

So there it is. Seven composers I think stand beyond the rest. Not because we now hear their music most frequently on the radio (we generally don’t) but because their music is simultaneously more unique and yet universal. They excelled, they innovated, and I mean really innovated, often in spite of much public opposition and hostility, and they were a bunch of exiles, eccentrics and isolated, forgotten pioneers. I could go on at length about their achievements, but what collectively sets them apart from other composers, I think, is that with those sorts of minds and personalities had they been born in a different time or place they still would have found their way to greatness one way or another. As I said, unique yet universal.