Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ives v. Pythagoras II

I asked for more detailed information regarding the tuning of Charles Ives’ Second Sting Quartet, and I got it: last Friday, Johnny Reinhard, the man behind the Flux Quartet’s recording, send me an e-mail with a link to his essay on the validity of Extended Pythagorean tuning in Ives’ music. You can read it here.

It’s a long argument, rather dense and technical. It might even be right, as far as any extrapolations from a man’s Nachlass can be, but I caught myself wondering just what it’s all for. Some of the discrepancies in pitch between equal temperament and Pythagorean tuning amount to no more than two one hundredths of a half step, a difference no listener could possibly pick up on. In a letter to a copyist, which Johnny quotes, Ives offers an observation we would do well to heed: “Either way won't 'make or break' the listener's ear.”

In any event, I stand by my assessment of the Flux Quartet’s performance. It is not my go-to recording. Johnny does address my criticisms in his e-mail, a little defensively. “One thing further to consider,” he says, “is that Flux was playing a live concert performance, while I suspect the other performances were studio. It is a testament to their playing that they could achieve this ‘experiment’ in their initial performance of the piece, and may also account somewhat to the length of the performance.”

I don’t want to sound harsh, because I am grateful than Johnny took the trouble to write, but I don’t see why the conditions of a live performance should make much of a difference. There are many wonderful live recordings. If the performers weren’t on top of the music, they could have spent more time in rehearsal. The mere fact they were able to make it through the piece is hardly a five-star recommendation.

And what’s with the name “Flux”? It sounds like some kind of discharge.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The power of the press

The concert by the Elysian Camerata that I previewed for Ticket (see left column) was not well attended. I counted about 40 people in the audience, mostly friends of the concert organizer, Renee pronounced Renee) Goldman, who is also my former piano teacher. A pity, since performance was excellent. The sight lines in the church prevented me from looking any of the performers in the face most of the time, but nothing impeded the sound. Two of the three pieces on the program, by Mozart and Dvorak, were first rate. The third — the Dumka of Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) — wasn’t quite on that level, but it was attractive. I had never heard of it before, and an educational experience is part of what I hope for when someone else is choosing my music for me.

Renee is the founder and director of Regol Concerts, which you can read about here. Her programs generally alternate between mainstream classical and mainstream jazz, which are her two major interests. She said she was happy with the coverage, which will at least get her brand name out in front of the public, but still, I was disappointed in the turnout. And it wasn’t even a modern music program — something I doubt Renee would even consider. I'd give her a huge write up, and since the odds are good no one would show up anyway, she'd have nothign to lose.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ives v. Pythagoras

Charles Ives wrote his String Quartet No. 2 between 1907 and 1913 in reaction to what he called the “weak, trite, and effeminate” quartet playing to which he had been subjected in the concert halls of his time. “After one of those Kniesel Quartet concerts in the old Mendelssoll,” he wrote in his autobiographical Memos, “I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practice, and have some fun with making these men fiddlers get up and do something like men.” That makes three halves, but there’s also a fourth: the composer’s drive toward spirituality, which emerges in an unforgettable finale. (In time, Ives reworked this section into the last movement of his Fourth Symphony, his definitive answer to the question of existence.) The quartet’s three movement are titled “Discussion,” “Arguments,” and “The Call of Mountains,” and the program Ives scrawled on the manuscript refers to “four men — who converse, argue … fight, shake hands, shut up — then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.” He called the quartet “one of the best things I have,” and so it is.

It has been recorded several times by the likes of the Juilliard, Cleveland, Concord, Leipzig, Emerson and Kohon quartets. While most of the performances are excellent, they all have one thing in common: they rely on equal temperament, the system of tuning that has dominated Western music since at least the middle of the 19th century. It never occurred to me that Ives might have had another system of tuning in mind when he composed his Second Quartet, but this week, I finally acquired a recording that proceeds precisely from this heretical idea. The CD, entitled simply Chamber, was issued in 2004 by the American Festival of Microtonal Music is still available online. It also includes microtonal works by Xanakis, Harry Partch, and Lou Harrison.

The booklet notes on the Ives quartet are brief and deserve to be quoted nearly in full:

While Ives’ music can be very dissonant in equal temperament, it was discovered by Johnny Reinhard that there was a different intent by the composer, ideally, in producing the intonation. This performance by the flux quartet makes use of extended Pythagorean tuning, giving 21 specific notes [per octave?]. The intonation change dramatically increases the powerful impact the music has on a listener …”

I would have liked some more detail — much more detail, really— on Johnny Reinhard’s discovery. Ives’s notes on the quartet are sketchy, consisting of the few sentences in his Memos quoted above and some manuscript marginalia. As for the observation that Ives’ music “can be very dissonant in equal temperament,” that’s sort of the point of much of it. And, as things turn out, the music is no less dissonant with the Pythagorean tuning, and in some places quite a bit more.

As the notes promise, the impact on the listener — on this listener, at least — does indeed increase the power of the music, especially in the first movement, which in performance can be the weakest of the three. The change in tuning results in a deliciously dense sound, but the playing, by the dreadfully named Flux Quartet, lacks the attention to phrasing and articulation that makes the more conventional recordings so memorable. The middle movement, “Arguments,” retains all of Ives’s aggressiveness — and then some — but none of his wit. The music just isn’t funny anymore. And the finale is transformed from a testament of inner peace into an extended mad scene. The high, squeaking violins are hard to listen to. They hurt my teeth.

As a comparison, I listened again to the fine recording by the Blair Quartet on the Naxos label. I often think of Naxos recordings as the ones you buy when you’re low on funds and nothing better is available, but Blair gives a beautifully thought out performance that captures all anger, fun and the grandeur Ives put into the score. (Compare the timings, too: The Blair plays the last movement in 11 minutes and 49 seconds. The Flux takes just 9:27. Performers need to let this music breathe.)

Who knows but that Ives would have approved of and enjoyed the Flux Quartet recording? He very well might have. It was a worthwhile experiment, but hardly definitive, and I do hope it doesn’t become the norm.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Links to articles, columns

I am slowly getting the hang of this site. To your left, you will see lists titled "Articles" and "Columns." The articles are, for the most part, concert previews I wrote for Ticket, Montgomery Newspapers' entertainment insert. The columns are just that: my weekly column for The Springfield Sun, which runs under the collective title "Ad Infinitum." They can deal with any topic, and so not all of them will appeal to the culturally minded among you, whoever "you" might be.

From now on I won't have to link to articles in the blog posts themselves.

Beautiful, sunny day here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Summer is definitely on its way.

I hate summer.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My little world, and welcome to it

The most appropriate post with which to pop my blog, as it were, is to link to a column I wrote recently for the Springfield Sun. It will give you a good idea of the kind of assignments I get to cover, and the caliber of performances I get to attend.