31 January 2007

Ambient Chamber Music: Mrs. Gold and the Stations of Life

Parker House Hotel

N oblesse sans oblige. Celia Lipton Farris was traumatized last year when her Palm Beach mansion was flooded by Hurricane Rita and the damage cost the British actress and socialite over $1 million to repair. But it wasn’t the money that flipped Farris out. It was being trapped in the house for several days by the rising waters, and she vowed never to be at nature’s mercy again. Farris has removed her vintage Cadillac from the garage and replaced it with a 20-foot boat with a 150-horsepower engine. ‘After seeing the people of New Orleans suffer the floods, I thank God I am in a position to be prepared for the worst,’ she said.”
  —  New York Post, Page Six, 06-SEP-2006

An early supper at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston.

Concierge: This is not like any other Hotel you’ll ever see. It’s not depressing here at all. In fact we pride ourselves on the fact that it’s so uplifting and cheerful. You’ll notice the place is immaculately maintained. We have the finest chefs and everyone here is happy and friendly. You’ll see.

The hostess seats us; the waiter comes and takes our order. We sit, smiling and listening, casually looking around at the elaborate bouquets and chandeliers in the elegant room with the 20-foot ceiling and gilded moulding.

CMT: This Mozart piano “Sonata No. 16 in C Major”, K.545, is this Schiff or Uchida?

DSM: I don’t know. It is a man. It isn’t Gould. But hear the pianist humming softly. Might be Andreas Haefliger. There are not so many structures of great moment in this sonata, you know? It has the demeanor of an earnest and bubbly teenager. That said, the harmonic progressions in the slow movement are remarkably complex and touching, and on that basis I think this piece might win the prize for “The Least Tiresome of The Most-Played Pieces Ever Written”!

Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545
It is 6:30 pm and the 30 year-old caregiver, Belinda, escorts the ninety-something Mrs. Gold directly into the walnut-paneled dining room. The two women proceed directly to a table along the interior wall. This is where Mrs. Gold and her companion have supper most nights of the week. It has been so for more than a decade.

Mrs. Gold
CMT: Look! The Maitre’D brings those two their drinks without any words spoken. This must be what they always have when they are here. Mrs. Gold seems mildly annoyed at the pace of the Mozart allegro, slightly resentful that there are still young people in the world.

DSM: Clearly one can view the innocence of this sonata in different lights.

CMT: Well, there’s no silence anywhere in it. The entire piece is cheerfully diverting, entirely extroverted. It’s stridently expressive, as if one person’s expression matters in the world. Mrs. Gold stares straight ahead into the dining room—see! She sits on the same side of the table as her young companion, sipping her whiskey sour, acting as if her companion isn’t even there!

DSM: The Sonata in C, K. 545—a sonata that Mozart wrote for beginners. Every piano student today can testify to having played this. Hard to properly reveal the bass notes, though. The memorable treble melody and the clarity of tone in the upper register are what get the attention in most pianists’ rendering of it. But whoever this pianist is distinguishes the recapitulation from the exposition by playing the first theme mezzo piano instead of mezzo forte as in the exposition. See, the ending coda goes through dynamic gradations of mezzo forte to forte to mezzo piano . . . Who is this playing?

CMT: Movement two begins simply. It’s still a beginner’s piece, yet amenable with a slow tempo and slight rubatos. Now in the third section of the movement, here is Mozart’s darker side with the ascending scales in the bass. All of a sudden everything’s quiet, and the movement rounds off with a coda.

DSM: The third movement—the rondo. It’s played here in a defined manner, with a clear pulse. By not playing it too fast, the pianist reminds us that this sonata was written for beginners who don’t yet have the technical efficiency that much of Mozart requires. This is still the happy Mozart, yet there’s a certain caution that can be perceived. The heavy coda is followed by a silent ending. Look, the African waiter with his hands behind his back looks as if he wishes the music to resume.

CMT: Did you know that Ho Chi Minh was once a sous baker in the kitchen here, in the early years of the 20th Century?

Belinda: It’s okay. Why exactly are you crying?

Mrs. Gold: I miss Rose! [sobs quietly]

Belinda: But you hardly even knew her.

Mrs. Gold: I know it seems that way, but I knew her a lot better years ago, before you came. She was a wonderful woman.

Belinda: I thought you said she was a complainer.

Mrs. Gold: That too, but she was wonderful and a complainer at the same time. I should have spent more time with her.

Belinda: I’m sorry. [puts her arm around Mrs. Gold]

CMT: Belinda, the caregiver companion, has a secret identity. She is a superheroine, and the ladies’ room in every restaurant is her global headquarters. She sees a signal from somewhere, makes a quick dash to the room, changes into her special costume, saves the world, fights the evil forces of the universe, then returns. No. More likely she just needs a break from the intense Mrs. Gold. Yes, there is Belinda again. Belinda has circled around after the trip to the ladies’ room and is talking with the restaurant’s hostess. Mrs. Gold, alone at the table, stares straight ahead into the center of the large dining room—hands folded on her lap, perseverating with the corner of her napkin. Belinda has been away now for more than 10 minutes. Mrs. Gold cannot understand Mozart through the music anymore.

Mrs. Gold
DSM: This reminds me that the appropriation by educators of Piaget's theories of child development led to the dissemination of the concept of age-related developmental stages. There is, rightly or wrongly now, a conjectured ceiling set on the ability to think—the apparent cognitive stage that the child has reached is a ceiling that one dare not go beyond. Teachers have been advised not to try to accelerate the emergence of successive stages. And there is, I see now, a corresponding appropriation of these ideas by well-meaning people caring for the elderly. Whatever the apparent age-related regression or debility, one dare not transgress the cognitive stage with stimuli of a different stage.

CMT: But this is not for no reason. There is an emotional dissonance that can be expected—as you saw on Mrs. Gold’s face. Oh, I suppose Belinda’s wish to reverse some of the regression by stimulation is understandable. But it may be futile. And if the exposure to the youthfulness, the exuberance, is insistent and relentless—in your face—it’s not surprising that the response is negative. Sad to say, it’s a little like second-hand tobacco smoke to that person. The Mozart is not pleasurable—it becomes emotionally toxic. It’s a reminder of losses, a reminder of Rose and of Mr. Gold, a reminder of your own mortality. Not that such reminders aren’t valuable—only that you may not want them in your face. The cheerful innocence of Mozart is sometimes unbearable. This dining room is full of it, nonstop. Things can conspire to just be perfectly cruel, can’t they!

Belinda, to Hostess: Her husband, Mr. Gold, died October 30th ten years ago. He died at their grandson’s home. It was Halloween eve. He had been in good health, even had held a dinner the night before. And then suddenly he went out of the room, just went down to lie down and passed away. We had gone to the grandson’s home to carve pumpkins with the great-grandchildren. And Mr. Gold just seemed a little unsteady and asked if he could go in the other room and lay down for a few minutes, and that was it.

Hostess: And he was—did you know he was dead?

Belinda: When we got to him it was pretty apparent that he was gone.

Hostess: And everyone thought what? Heart attack, right?

Belinda: Yes. Yes, yes. And it seemed so peaceful.

CMT: Paul Ricoeur returns to this question in a number of essays. He establishes the independence of the text first from the writer/composer—‘What the text signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant’—and also from the original audience, or, for that matter, from any single reading, and so from any and all subsequent readers. In Bakhtine’s way of saying, the text or music achieves its own voices. Ricoeur’s hermeneutical program leads him to establish the identity of the text in terms of its interpretation: the text is found in what it means.

DSM: To say that this brain activity is a real instantiation of the sonata would then be parallel to saying that cloud formations are a real instantiation of weather; and we might do worse than this. But at least two complications are involved. First, the sonata would now be fragmented into an unknown multitude of private readings, their differences depending amongst other things on how well listeners knew the works of Mozart, and on what personal intertextualities were evoked by their hearings of the work. Secondly, the patterns of brain activity produced by the sonata are not materializations of the sonata in the same way as written signs or sound waves, because the individual brain which hosts them is itself highly patterned beforehand. This is not to invoke “innatist” theories of language or music, although it may also do that. Whether innate or acquired, the prior patterning of the mind weighs heavily on the resulting perception you have of it. A reading of the sonata as it takes place in the brain is a tertiary field of “interference,” formed from a large number of fields of which the input from the written page of music and the prior patterning of the mind are just two inputs among many.

CMT: These are abstractions, and some are more or less ‘tertiary’ than others. This tertiariness is not a range of different states, but a single condition of perception: whatever comes to mind is in tertiary form in that it is composed of other forms that interact. If we can pick out those other forms they will also be tertiary forms. They are not hierarchically or sequentially organized. So when we talk of a sonata in this way we are not handling a sequentially organized text. The third text which has quickened in the marriage of the ‘original’ (invisible, unplayable) sonata and the patterned brain and constitutes our understanding of the sonata—does not exist as a serial construct.

DSM: More than this, the sonata—any logical or artistic serial creation, for that matter—does not acquire its seriality until late in the process of creation. Penrose quotes Hadamard for accounts of creative activity where music (Mozart) or mathematical theorems (Poincaré) are formed in the minds of their creators whole, in nonsequential form; days or weeks of hard work are then needed to commit these inspired creations to paper. Coleridge’s account of the genesis and loss of Kubla Khan is an example. Mozart is maybe the best example. Mrs. Gold is losing her grip on logic and is having difficulty with seriality. And, obviously, the invisible magical sonata no longer registers with the patterns in her brain. All that registers with Mrs. Gold is Mozart’s immutable, disturbing youth.

CMT: Come to think of it, is there any evidence that Mozart understood what it is like to be old?

Parker House Hotel

28 January 2007

Chamber Music Valentines

Happy Valentines!

C omputers are useless. All they can give you are answers.”
  — Pablo Picasso
CMT: What have you planned for your Valentine?

DSM: That’s always a bit of a challenge! You know, regarding gift-giving we both prefer activities or consumables or symbolic donations to our favorite non-profit orgs, rather than “things”. Here are a few thoughts, though, in a SlideShare deck:

(The default size is small—just 400 pixels wide in this CSS template in Blogger. You can left-click on the slide object and then right-click on it to get a pop-up that lets you zoom-in and pan around—to be able to read the second-level dash-bullet quotes on the first slide, for example. Also, some of the slides have hyperlinks on the bullet-text. If you move your cursor around and the hyperlink that interests you is highlighted and the cursor changes to an upward-pointing gloved hand, then left-clicking on it will open the link in a new browser window. The forward and back controls at the bottom of the object work as you would expect. The SlideShare service is free. To see how we’re using it embedded in this blog, use your browser’s View pull-down to look at the HTML source for this page. The link for SlideShare points to AMAZONAWS.com, Amazon’s Web Services, but there isn’t any description of SlideShare on Amazon AWS’s webpage because SlideShare is simply built with AWS and is not an Amazon service. The Amazon AWS blog and the SlideShare team blog both have info about it, though, and you can find out more on the SlideShare website. )

CMT: I have the following rules I try to follow:
  • The gift should be extraordinary in some way.
  • The gift must be something that has a reasonable chance of evoking a pleasurable emotional response from the giver, the receiver and anyone else nearby (friends, kids).
  • The gift should be as ageless and timeless as possible, and should not shout any particular age or income.
  • If the gift is performance art, it should generate real emotion and meaningful affirmation of the connection or relationship.
DSM: We have progressively less free time today and tend to live farther apart. This has a profound impact, I think, on all facets of our social lives, not just choosing gifts. Social scientists say that, even under the same roof, family members are spending less time together. This raises concerns about family cohesion, particularly between the young and old. And it has an impact, too, on the kinds of gifts we should give . . .

CMT: At highest risk are young people in dire need of guidance and nurturing. The prospect of “going it alone” is difficult for many elders as well. Undesired social isolation is often associated with physical and psychological stress and decline. Gifts should be designed and chosen so that they reduce isolation and continue doing so after the gift-exchange moment . . .

DSM: Remember how in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the axis around which Gabriel Conroy’s after-dinner speech turns is the hospitality of the hostesses. In Gabriel’s words, “the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world” exemplify “the tradition genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality”. But the real reason for the party is that it is a way for the aunts, Julia and Kate, and their niece, Mary Jane, to advertise their music school. The hospitality Gabriel celebrates is tainted by this ulterior motive. In fact, even though the motif of generosity appears various points in “The Dead,” it is not dealt with positively anywhere. By contrast, the ideal Valentine should be good art, without any strings or dangling ends!

Be Mine!
O ne cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating its relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is gift, the given of the gift must not come back to the giving. It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics, the gift must remain aneconomic.”
  — Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I, Counterfeit Money

22 January 2007

Michael Nyman: Successful Minimalist, Successful Film Composer

Tristram Shandy

T here’s always a question of duration; there’s a question of who the orchestra is. No one is free to write what you want—you collaborate on a film score, and one of the good things is that someone else’s work is motivating you.”
  — Michael Nyman

CMT: Yesterday I saw the 2006 Michael Winterbottom – Steve Coogan film, ‘Tristram Shandy,’ on DVD. Nice Michael Nyman soundtrack, including a re-do of the adaptation of Handel’s Sarabande in D minor—the one that he did for the 1982 Peter Greenaway film, ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract.’

DSM: Remind me—a sarabande is a slow dance that typically has a hemiola meter, right? Three in two? A hemiola is a metrical pattern in which two bars in triple time (3/2 or 3/4 or 3/8, for example) are articulated as if they were three bars in duple time (2/2 or 2/4 or 2/8). ‘Hemiola’ derives from the Greek ‘hemiolios’, meaning “one and a half”—am I remembering that correctly?

Draughtsman’s Contract
CMT: Yes. And Handel’s original Sarabande in D minor illustrates interplay between at least five rhythmic levels: the natural poetic meter, the imposed poetic meter, the expected meter of the dance, the harmonic rhythm of the music and the ternary rhythm. Nyman adapts this interplay to create an edgy, intense, off-balance pulse.

DSM: It’s a little hard for us today to think of dancing with such resolute sadness. The traditional ‘saudades’ of Portugal; some Spanish tango—so there are a few modern forms, I suppose, that have poetic meter, dance meter, and harmonic rhythms similar to a sarabande. . . But I suppose that the ritualized gestures of the sarabande as a dance—the partners continue in their stylized way governed by the music until the music concludes, with no escape once it’s begun—I suppose this dance idiom serves to lend a fatalistic nuance to what Nyman is doing. In other words, I suppose Nyman chose this sarabande form so as to emphasize the constraints that the characters have. Tristram Shandy, after all, is concerned with the ‘thrownness’ and profound uncontrollability of life—we humans are, in contravention of all wishes we might have to be masters of our destiny, constrained by circumstances and chance occurrences.

CMT: Michael Nyman followed a traditional music education at the Royal Academy of Music and King's College London. Renouncing Classical Music traditions, he spent some time collecting examples of Romanian folk music before working as a musicologist and critic. His famous book ‘Experimental Music, Cage and beyond’ was mainly about minimalism and exploring the relationship between composer, performer and audience, the relationship between sound and silence, and music-as-theatre.

DSM: Nyman’s own minimalist compositions rely on simple patterns and repeated figures, with progressive or cyclical variations as vessels for his meaning. Often, the progressions are hypnotic in the way that dance music is routinely hypnotic. For more than 25 years Nyman has nurtured a strong relationship with film director Peter Greenaway. The music for these Peter Greenaway films was played by the Nyman Band, whose distinctive sound hints at jazz and features saxophones. But he takes short phrases and chord sequences mostly from the Baroque and Classical eras. Nyman frequently borrows motives from composers such as Handel, Purcell, Mozart and Brahms. These are used as passacaglia-like foundations for variations anchored with a ‘ground’. One characteristic of Nyman's music from this time is that it simply stops abruptly when the last variation finishes—he almost never recapitulates with a Coda. Very dramatic—what this does in the context of a film! I wonder why more chamber music composers don’t pitch the art flick producers and directors . . .

Handel Sarabande in D-mi, m1-11
Play MP3: Handel Sarabande in D mi
CMT: Though Nyman scored lots of soundtracks for Greenaway, it was for director Jane Campion that Nyman’s best known work was composed. The soundtrack to ‘The Piano’ illustrates his minimalism. Curiously, Michael Nyman has been known to introduce himself to a French audience as ‘The English Yann Tiersen.’

DSM: The 2 + 1 division of the measure in the triple meters is maybe more common, more thematic in later repertoires than it is in Baroque music. We may have even come to hear it as more natural than the division into 1 + 2. The division into 1 + 2, by contrast, is a kind of characteristically Baroque rhythmic device exemplified in the sarabande, the minuet, and other genres that are geared to this accented second beat.

CMT: Counterstress or local emphasis on the second beat (representing not displacement but rather the accent scheme of an established genre) is a feature of most of Handel’s sarabandes, chaconnes, and minuets. And it’s prominent, too, in his other dance pieces. Such emphasis, which doesn’t detract from the metrical force of the downbeat, rarely causes backbeat displacement. It usually accrues to the second beat through a durational accent or through a melodic, textural, or registral intensification of the type that William Rothstein calls counterstress. Counterstress defines these dance forms, especially when the rhythms of the piece suggest that the genre in question is enclosed within the confines of another genre. But a counterstress that falls on the second beat and competes with the adjacent downbeat can occur in any composition. Its prevalence in dances is probably the reason why it appears in the triple meters so often. Its ubiquity in imitative textures—during the preparation and the resolution of suspensions, and at points of imitation—accounts for its inverse prevalence in the duple meters.

Mozart Piano Sonata, K332, hemiola
DSM: In addressing the performance of sarabandes, Donald Waxman says that, historically, sarabandes were lusty dances complete with castanets and tambourines, but that by the 18th-century, sarabandes had evolved into sober, un-lusty things. In describing the sarabande, he states: “Danced to a sustained but not too slow pulse in three, the sarabande is unusual for a dance in triple time because of its frequent stresses on the second beat. These stresses on beat two, somewhat the equivalent of a double downbeat, can be very repetitive, or they can alternate over two or four bars, as often occurs in the Bach sarabandes.”

CMT: Willner identifies several categories of Handelian hemiolas—cadential, expansion, contraction, and overlapping hemiolas. He says that the hemiola courts a level of tension or uncertainty in that the hemiola may not be the same in the outer voices: the bass may not necessarily support the hemiola in the upper voice, and the upper voice may not corroborate the hemiola in the bass. Especially in such cases, the tension accrues through a series of stresses—rhythmic accents that are due to melodic, textural, harmonic, or registral intensification.

Michael Nyman, drowning by numbers
DSM: Because the overlapping hemiolas span several bars, the temporary metrical uncertainty they portray in the middle can create big disturbances in the rhythmic flux of the piece. To foster a compositional and rhetorical milieu in which such disturbance will achieve its intended effect without going in the ditch, Handel prepares the onset of his hemiolas in some way during the preceding passages and then only gradually allows them to dissipate in the phrase or phrases that follow. By the time their peregrinations are finished, their very presence in the piece will have promoted additional rhythmic space, and this might have in turn become the compositional essence of the piece.

CMT: Nyman’s awkwardness and abruptness are not unlike the difficulties Baroque composers faced when, in the course of short pieces, they felt need to resolve complex issues they had raised moments earlier but did not quite have the needed durational space in which to work out the resolution. It’s much like the problem of microfiction—how do you write a short story in 250 words?

DSM: And Handel’s handling of the Sarabande’s durational space is typical of the improvizational nature of Baroque style. It gives a degree of compositional freedom, wouldn’t you say?

Michael Nyman
CMT: I do worry, though, that Nyman is co-opting the sarabande, taking it far out of context. The sarabande is offered as a homily, yet when we watch the films that have these pieces as part of the soundtracks we have no idea what this genre designation means to the homiletical way in which the music is heard or played in the context of the films. Is it right to simply unleash the thing to be heard empirically, without intertextual reference even to other works that we understand as belonging to the genre of Baroque dance. Isn’t this a very risky thing to do? A big risk of being misunderstood, or not understood at all?

DSM: Since most acts of listening include categorization of the music being heard and categorization plays an important role in listening strategies, the implications of the musical surface must be shaped, to a large degree, by intertextual reference. What does the viewer-listener who has no intertextual references or familiarity with Baroque dances make of this passage’s primary metrical form?

CMT: I prefer Hatten’s ‘stylistic level’ to refer to surface issues, and his ‘strategic level’ to denote large-scale matters, such as the rhetorical ordering of topical groups and sections. ‘Topics’ in Handel’s D-minor Sarabande include the characteristic pairs of repeated notes on the first and second beats of many measures, the preponderance of durational accents on many second beats, the use of characteristic chordal and intervallic textures in thematic areas, and the underlying progressions and division into eight-bar phrases and four-bar subphrases. In their own genre, topical passages are ‘unmarked’ since they’re familiar to the listener who has heard other instances of the genre. But when the same topical passages make guest appearances in other genres, as they do here in film soundtracks, they take on a ‘marked’ quality. In Handel’s D-minor Sarabande, topical passages appear only on their own turf and remain unmarked until Nyman’s Sarabande’s narrative scheme transforms them into marked passages.

Michael Nyman
DSM: It’s of course by no means certain that the listener’s conception of the screenplay’s plot will coincide with the composer’s or the analyst’s, or with the performers’ or director’s, for that matter. The listener, who possesses few of the analyst’s tools or experience, makes sense of it in an ad hoc way. But even if in the first few bars of Handel's D-minor Sarabande virtually every detail of its rhythm, melody, and harmony is a trope that can be found in other examples of this same genre, and even if many listeners may not be able to recall whether a ‘reference’ at, say, m. 25, is to a previous point in the same piece or to a similar passage in another one, I think that both analyst and listener will approach such passages as singular moments in a work that tells a unique story. Their interpretations will depend less on their ability to recognize the intertextual roots of such passages as they will depend on their capacity to interpret the unique use to which these roots are put in relation to what they have just heard and seen. For the listener as well as the analyst, apprehending Handel’s D-minor Sarabande—or Nyman’s variations on it—is therefore an active, creative experience. It doesn’t depend on an extensive familiarity with Baroque chamber music as such. And, yes, maybe chamber music would be more socially popular than it current ly is, if composers (or organizations such as CMA) overtly marketed to the film industry.

Michael Nyman, in search of a zed hidden amongst many noughts