Category Archives: Personal

New ballet playing card published

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I’m publishing my 52 cards on the dates that they should have been published – so you might have missed the latest one, a medley of triple jigs, which I retro-published on the 30th July yesterday (if you see what I mean). If you’re collecting the 52 cards, the best way to keep track of updates is to subscribe to the 52 cards feed, or save a link to the 52 cards page where the various pieces are listed in date order.

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Conference on music and movement as process and experience

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If you’re wondering why there’s been a long silence in the 52 cards project, it’s because I’ve been just too busy with other stuff, such as organizing the Conference on Music and Movement as Process and Experience that takes place tomorrow, 23rd October under the banner of the Institute of Education’s Music Special Interest Group. It takes place tomorrow at the Royal Academy of Dance  who’ve very kindly agreed to host it.

In  a way, this conference is another step along the path that I had in my mind over 15 years ago that, and blogged about in 2005. My thinking’s moved on a bit in various directions since that post, but that’s roughly where it started.

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A year of Ballet playing cards: new score published

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If you’ve been following the Year of Ballet Playing Cards, you might have missed a couple of updates, as I’m setting the “published” dates as when they should have been published, rather than the date when I publish them. It’s just easier to keep track of that way. The best thing to do is to either follow the blog, or to bookmark this automatically page of links to the playing cards in date order. If you can’t be bothered to scroll down the page, click here to get today’s update, the coda from the Talisman pas de deux, a nice big waltzy thing.

 

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A year of ballet playing cards #21: A gigue by Grétry (8h)

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Image of the piano score of a gigue by Grétry

Click to download the file

I can’t remember why I started listening to Grétry’s music after neglecting him for so long. In the years I’ve hunted for music for class, syllabi, other people’s ballet shows and so on, I’ve stopped at nothing as far as search routines are concerned, sometimes chucking any old search term into iTunes, like “carrot” or “milk” and seeing what comes up – so heaven knows how I might have found Grétry (random search terms can be very productive – give it a try if you haven’t already). Or perhaps it was reading about him in a music history book that led me to discover his catchy music for “Turks” in the Cairo Caravan, and to wonder whether there was more where this came from.

Meter and the gigue

Gigues that have real triple movement in them (as opposed to being marches with a bit of a triplet-y lilt)  as well as being in 8-bar phrases are quite hard to find. Pieces like this are useful for those teachers that set petit allegros which need this continuous, filigree surface. It’s interesting how much you find gigue-like  texture and movement in Tchaikovsky (think of the party scene, see below) which supports Taruskin’s thesis (I’m paraphrasing) that Tchaikovsky was more of a French composer than a Russian one.

party-scene

Extract from Act 1 of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” party scene

I was all excited at how much more interesting Grétry’s music was than I had thought it would be when I heard the clip below. Later, I realised that what I was listening to had been arranged and added to by Felix Mottl, as you’ll find out if you compare the two scores at IMSLP (i.e. the orchestral ballet suite, and the vocal score of the opera from which the ballet music is taken).

Rejigging the gigue: arranging as renovation

I happen to love Mottl’s re-hearing of the gigue (sadly, I’ve had to cut some of the best bits for the sake of making it work for class. When you look at Grétry’s original, you realise that Mottl had heard something in the music that needed polishing to summon the genie in the lamp. Perhaps I would not have been so ready to admire Mottl’s arrangement, had I not just re-read one of my favourite passages about arrangement from Peter Szendy’s Listen: A history of our ears. 

As ballet musicians, we are used to arranging (it fascinates me, incidentally, the  sociological implications behind the two terms dance arranger and “composer”) but it is Szendy who dignifies the practice with what you might call a poetics of arrangement:

amazon-szendyI love them more than all the others, the arrangers. The ones who sign their names inside the work, and don’t hesitate to set their name down next to the author’s. Bluntly adding their surname by means of a hyphen: Beethoven-Liszt (for a piano version of the nine symphonies), Bach-Webern (for an orchestration of the ricercar in the  Musical Offering), Brahms-Schoenberg, Schubert-Berio, who else—in short, a whole mass of double-barrel signatures.

Now it seems to me that what arrangers are signing is above all a listening. Their hearing of a work. They may even be the only listeners in the history of music to write down their listenings, rather than describe them (as critics do). And that is why I love them, I who so love to listen to someone listening. I love hearing them hear.

(Peter Szendy Listen: A history of our ears, Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. 35-36)

There’s enough material in this gigue to make your own version – you might not want to begin the exercise in octaves in the bass, but that might be fun half way through, for example. Arrange away, add a fourth or fifth name to the credits.

 

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Supermarkets: will we (or they) ever learn?

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Picture of courgettes and price tickets in Sainsburys in 2010.

Misleading? Courgette pricing in Sainsburys in 2010. Have they got any better? Check at your local store!

For those who enjoyed my 30 days without a supermarket challenge, you might be interested in this news in today’s Guardian – UK supermarkets criticised over misleading pricing tactics. Which? have lodged a “super-complaint” about dodgy dealing by supermarkets – including the kind of misleading or confusing pricing that I’ve banged on about in the past about courgettes and digestive biscuits.

 

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How powerful is satire? Hollaender, Hitler, “The Book of Mormon,” and Nigel Farage

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I finally got to see The Book of Mormon yesterday, and it was everything I’d expect a Matt Stone and Trey Parker production to be. Orgazmo – their 1997 film a similarly outrageous Mormon reference- is one of my all time favourite films.

It’s only a couple of minutes into the musical that you realise that the real outrageousness in this musical has nothing whatsoever to do with insulting Mormons, but is pointed at worldwide indifference to elephants in the room such as AIDS, poverty, military dictatorships, FGM and so on. It’s a curious mixture: three retired-age ladies in the audience on my left had disappeared after the first interval (and it wasn’t to find better seats – it was sold out, and this was the stalls). I was only surprised that more people hadn’t left, since there was no out-of-bounds topic or swear-word left untouched by the end of the second song. What the ladies probably hadn’t got the hang of, however, is that all those things that they were singing about weren’t indigenous to the musical, they were out there in the world. Stone & Parker are just make you see and hear it through the medium of song, and in a style that is so immediate and familiar, that it’s like someone dropping 10 ton ideas on your foot, while you’re laughing.

We all laughed, it’s a hilarious show, and the more outrageous the songs are, the funnier it gets. I thought to myself, this is great. I live in a world where there’s a whole theatre full  of people who get the point like I do (apart from the three ladies, of course). The Book of Mormon is hugely successful, there must be thousands of us. So is this show a force for good? Can culture save us? Probably not, I thought – because what we’re doing, those of us who turned up, is celebrating the values we already hold through some kind of public ritual. It’s like choral evensong in South Park. Great, but eventually, will it change anything? It’s high satire, probably some of the most provocative satire in the world (more so than Charlie Hebdo, in many ways) yet I’m not sure it makes a difference, precisely because it’s preaching to the choir. There was a wonderful moment when Elder Cunningham, who has called the Ugandan girl Nabulungi by the wrong name every time he speaks to her (implying that he can’t be bothered to find out what it is, or spend time learning to pronounce it), calls her “Nigel Farage.” The house collapsed with laughter for several seconds. It was a master stroke. In one multimodal moment of musical theatre, the politics and personality of Ukip and Nigel Farage just imploded in a communal guffaw. The trouble is, of course, no-one could hear us.

And that led me back to thinking about another period of intense satire, Germany in the 1930s. If it hadn’t been for a cabaret singer that I teamed up with when I worked in Berlin in the early 1990s, I would never have known about a song by Friedrich Hollaender, written in 1931, called “An allem sind die Juden schuld” (Everything is the Jews’ fault).  The song, sung to the tune of the habanera from Carmen, pokes fun at Hitler, two years before he came to power (so the commonly held idea that Germans just woke up with a start after the second world to find that Hitler wasn’t who they thought he was needs some revision, if this song is anything to go by).

It has some cracking lines and rhymes like schwul/Stuhl (“If the Prince of Wales is gay, or your dog has hard stools… it’s the Jews’ fault”).  It’s as risqué in several senses as The Book of Mormon. But my point is, as accurate and funny as it is, it didn’t stop Hitler getting to power. My guess is that like The Book of Mormon, there were probably clubs full of people who were glad to find their ideals celebrated in song, but who nonetheless found themselves transported and killed by people who had no time for such things.

By chance, I’d recently read a brilliant article (Rediscovering Operetta – and overcoming the Nazi shadow) on how operetta, once a caustic, Book-of-Mormon type genre for social and political satire, got toned down into the anodyne schmaltz that we think of it today by – guess who, the Nazis. What’s brilliant about The Book of Mormon is that it satirizes within itself the kind of sanitized, politics-free sugary world of musical theatre, while carrying on its own more edgy version at the same time. The song “We Are Africa” is a masterwork of this kind of parody,

And yet. And yet, and yet.

Much as I love satire (and I love it almost above everything else), I think we overrate its power. Did Spitting Image change much? Or did it just give us a vent for our powerless rage at the politics that had overcome us? Months after Charlie Hebdo, have a few cartoons really changed the world?

I don’t think so, and that’s why, whatever you think of him (I don’t care – I love him), I think Russell Brand has got it right. He’s a comedian, but he’s not relying on comedy to change the world, but a Buddhist vision of right living and thinking. I’m not saying stop the satire, don’t laugh, or don’t see “The Book of Mormon,” but don’t pretend that “free speech,” in the form of satire is magically going to get us out of any conceptual ruts, because in the end, we choose what we listen to, and we pretty much know what we’re going to believe before we listen.  It takes much bigger thinking, and much more personal investment in change to make a difference.

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The schottische and the chotis, and other dances

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It’s years ago since a Spanish friend and dancing colleague told me that there was a connection between Schottische and a Spanish dance called chotis, and I’ve been meaning to look it up properly ever since. I’ve now come across this fabulous page:  Kicking It Up: ‘Asi se baila el chotis’ (this is how you dance the chotis) which traces several international links between the Schottische and its counterparts in other countries. The page is  part of a project called Modern Moves: Kinetic Transnationalism and Afro-Diasporic Rhythm Cultures, a “five-year =research project (June 2013 – May 2018), funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant, and located at the Department of English, King’s College London.”

I’m thrilled by this, but also slightly dismayed that yet again, when you want to know something that has really bugged you about dance and music, more often than not, it seems to be done by people outside conventional music or dance studies, as if those disciplines are in fact too disciplined to generate the right kind of questions and research methods. The site looks fantastic, and I’m looking forward to exploring more.

Here’s a nice sample of one of the clips – music: Feira de Mangaio by Sivuca

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And finally: *that* Tarantella by Czerny is finally identified

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For anyone who was following my posts about the sources for Czerny’s music in Etudes, I’m very happy to say that someone has finally filled in the last piece of the jigsaw: the tarantella is from  Op. 834 No. 27 (see comment here).  Thank you Gabri!

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A year of ballet playing cards #01: Adage (As) – Mozart clarinet concerto

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Mozart clarinet concerto, arranged for piano solo (image)

Mozart clarinet concerto 2nd Movt, arranged for piano. Click to download the score

Mozart and the malleability of musical meaning

This piece has a strange place in my affections. I disliked it for many years – I’m only a fairweather clarinet enthusiast, I’m not a huge Mozart fan, I don’t like slow music, and this piece is just too sentimental for my liking (those descending motifs in the second phrase tug too hard at the heart strings). But a few years ago,  I suddenly heard this music through someone else’s ears at a moment when it was accompanying them through the worst part of their life,  and they found peace and comfort in it.  After that, I could only think of it that way, and only think of them in that situation, and it changed it for me permanently.

At the moment I’m reading Tia DeNora’s Musical Asylums, and I was really taken with the bit where she says how it’s  precisely because music is so indefinite and malleable in its meanings, that it is so useful as a medium for change and personal use: it defies meaning, but it can also acquire all kinds of meanings according to people and context. That’s what happened here: the same musical material changed its meaning for me. The music offered me an insight into someone else’s feelings through a transformative connection with my own, and that is an extraordinary achievement of music, isn’t it? – though the whole point of what DeNora is saying is that music on its own does not have this “power,” it’s what we do with it, the way we appropriate it, and give it meanings and uses that is extraordinary.

Adage and metrical issues: the case of the Mozart clarinet concerto

At times, I have wondered whether I should never have created the “Spades” category for myself – that is, the kind of adage music where you don’t care whether it’s in three or four or 12 or whatever, it’s just “slow” (see the “about the year of cards” page if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  In the cold light of empirical day, is there actually such a thing? This is the danger of creating categories before you start work on a project.

Yet just when I was going to give it up as a bad idea, I remembered this piece, the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet concerto. It’s a perfect example of what I mean by the “spades” category, since for almost a week a couple of years ago, I was sure it was in four, not three.  I had chosen it for a plié exercise, and even tested it out by plié-ing in my head while listening to it. If i could notate or explain how I came to hear it in four rather than three, I’d talk myself out of it, but I’ll do my best.

With this music, at least on this occasion, I didn’t feel subdivisions, I just heard the “1s” – the slow pulses marking the beginning of each bar. The beats in between were like rubber ducks floating in a bath, with no metre or pattern, no rhythmical parsing. Just a kind of flow or feeling.  It’s at times like this when I feel the most affinity with my dance colleagues when they don’t have any perception of or interest in time signature: they’re being mindful (in the Buddhist, meditative sense) of the music, but in a different way. I’ve tried to mentally notate what I thought the music was doing, but I can’t, because whatever I was hearing was “pre-notational.”

 

Mozart and phrase structure

There is something so perfect about a Mozart phrase. If you read Joseph Riepel’s 1752 primer on how to write a minuet in Fundamentals of Musical Composition ,  you get an insight into the craft of phrase structure: it’s not genius, it’s about knowing when to go up, when to go down, how to go there, for how long, and in what proportion and so on. As Riepel illustrates, this is something you can teach and learn, and the minuet is a good way to start. I once got a group of first year students to act out Riepel’s master-and-pupil-style dialog, providing the musical examples myself at the piano. I don’t know whether those students really learned much from it, but it was quite a fun way of spending a music lesson.

This piece could be wonderful for class, but the potential for problems are in its tempo. It needs to be slow, and that’s how I managed to mishear it (i.e. because it was so slow, the elapsed time of a single bar was about twice the length of a normal 3/4 plié bar).  Wait til someone wants a really slow three, and save it for that. So even though I’m saying that this piece is perhaps neither “particularly” three or particularly four, you might need to wait for a “particularly three” moment to play it, even if you don’t feel its threeness on the surface.

About this arrangement of the Mozart clarinet concerto

In transcribing this for piano, it’s been hard to leave a single note out (hence the rather awkward arrangement).  It sounds simple until you try to reproduce it on the piano: the transparency of the writing makes it surprisingly difficult.  You can’t just chuck a chord in the left hand and a solo in the right, because the light won’t shine through it.  The writing is thin: no bass in the solo sections, and only two notes to hold the harmony together: not an ounce of surplus anywhere.  And when the tutti come in, you want richness, not sludge, so chord voicing is a problem.  I’ve done my best, though I know I’ll be trying to perfect a sound for this for a long time to come.

Postscript: (if you like your adage with a bit of Wittgenstein)

Now by coincidence, I’d just been reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and had just got to No. 78 as I was doing this blog entry:

“78. Compare knowing and saying:

how many metres high Mont Blanc is –
how the word “game” is used –
how a clarinet sounds

Someone who is surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it is perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.”  

Now, it’s pure coincidence that he happens to be talking about the clarinet here and this is a clarinet concerto, but the issue is the same as “knowing” a piece of music without being able to say what it “is” or what it’s “in” in terms of metre and structure. I know what this music sounds like, and I could probably play some of it by ear, but initially, I couldn’t say what it was in terms of metre (even though I’d known the music for years).  That’s not something you hear much with regard to metre, because metre is so often spoken about in terms of number, as if that’s all it was.

References

 

 

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