Toyota robot musicians

Recently someone posted four videos on Trombone-L of musical robots made  by Toyota. Someone else found them very depressing. Live musicians, he wrote, have enough  trouble without competition from yet another machine. If Toyota has already had this much success, what’s next? I have an answer, but first, here are the robot musicians:

A tuba player–to me the least impressive of the bunch but still quite amazing:

A trumpeter with pretty good sound. It plays better than a lot of human trumpeters, even if it’s stage presence is a little, shall we say, mechanical.

A small jazz combo. What, no trombone?

And finally, a brief appearance by a robot violinist. This final video reveals the reason why Toyota is working on robot musicians. The engineers have no particular interest in music. Developing these robots is no more than a means to an end.

Toyota engineers (among others) want to develop robots with more useful and practical skills. You will notice a robotic wheel chair and a robot capable of acting as a tour guide and signing its name. Ultimately, Toyota wants to produce robots capable of interacting with people in real time, robotic cars, for example. Apparently people will still drive the cars, but the robots will notice road conditions, hazards, and whether the human is too tired or otherwise impaired to continue safely.

In other words, Toyota engineers have developed the ability to build an entire orchestra of robots, but they  probably won’t. Once they learn all they can from building robot musicians, they will turn to other challenges, long before they make robot musicians for every instrument. I, for one, would love to see them build a trombonist that can play Pryor’s Blue Bells of Scotland before they move away from music.

Even though it is possible to build robots with the mechanical ability to play tunes or even ensembles, I can’t conceive of robots playing with feeling or taste. So there are at least three reasons not to worry about live musicians losing work to robots: engineers are not interested in making enough robots; they would be far too expensive to build, program, and maintain; and they can never make the jump from technological mastery to artistry.

The raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring


By the time Stravinsky mounted  Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before.

Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird and Petroushka, had been successful, even though the music was quite different than what French audiences were accustomed to hearing, as was the choreography of the Russian dancer Vaslev Nijinsky. In Rite of Spring, both men pushed the envelope still further.  Nijinsky’s wife anticipated that the new ballet would make the audience fidget.

Instead, within moments after the music started, they began to murmur. Then some of them started making cat-calls and shouting. That angered  other audience members who wanted to hear the music. Their attempts to stop the shouting simply added to the noise. The orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux, continued to play even though no one could hear them at all. He looked to the box of impresario Serge Diaghilev for instructions, and Diaghilev signaled him to keep going.

The theater manager ordered the house lights turned on. Instead of stopping the noise, it only made audience members visible enough to each other that they could begin to fight with each other. When one lady slapped the face of a man nearby, he and her escort exchanged cards and fought a duel the next day. Eventually the police arrived and emptied the theater, except for the performers. The orchestra had never stopped playing and finished performing the ballet to the quiet of an empty room.

Monteux later recalled that the company presented five performances in all in the same theater, all with the same kind of reaction. Each time, he concentrated on keeping the orchestra together and did not look up to see the ballet itself. After a couple of performances in London, where audiences sat quietly and left, it seemed that Rite of Spring had simply failed. Usually in case of such failure, that is the end of the story.

But as friends described the ballet to Monteux, he concluded that the choreography upset the Parisian audiences at least as much as the music. Monteux persuaded Stravinsky to allow a concert performance of Rite of Spring in Paris. With nearly every important musician in town attending a sold-out concert hall, some of the more conservative members of the audience still hated the music, but they simply walked out. Others left at the end of the concert with renewed appreciation for Stravinsky’s music in general and Rite of Spring in particular.

 

By 1940,  Rite of Spring had become so much accepted in concert  halls that Walt Disney had no qualms about including it in an animated feature with a sound track entirely comprising classical music. Nowadays, as regular readers of Musicology for Everyone may recall, conducting Rite of Spring has literally become child’s play, at least to one five-year-old!

 

Sources: The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985), numbers 721, 722; pp. 306-07.

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by dalbera

Help me help the needy all over the world

With the ads and affiliate links on my blogs, it’s no secret that I intend to make money from them. To that end, I read quite a bit on advice on blogging. Saturday, a post caught my eye that suggested a means of using blogs to give to various causes. As a Christian, I believe in tithing to the Lord, so I found that post so exciting that I dropped all of my other plans to follow through on it. That explains why I didn’t update any of my blogs today, even though I had not managed to update all of them over the past week.

So I’d like to introduce you to a new widget where you can donate to World Relief, a wonderful charity I have donated to for years.

For more than 60 years, World Relief has been equipping churches and communities to help victims of disease, hunger, war, disaster and persecution. World Relief reaches people no one else reaches, people often overlooked or forgotten, including many in volatile and vulnerable situations. The heart of our mission is to create a lasting impact by strengthening local churches to serve those who are hurting.

The blogger whose post inspired this move asked  his readers and followers to help him raise $10,000 over two years. I’m not as big as he is, so I have set what feels like a very ambitious goal of raising $1,200 over one year. That will take God’s help and all of yours.

I’m starting to get decent traffic to my blogs, and frankly I hope this move will earn enough trust that I can get more traffic. I also welcome your comments. The better I know you, the better I will be able to understand how and what to write to fulfill the interests and needs that draw you here.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the widget leads you to FirstGiving, and you will make your donation through them. They will pass it on to World Relief. I will not see any of the money. 

Children and classical music revisited

classical music


Last March I wrote Children and classical music, which featured Charlie Loh, a professional conductor’s five-year-old son conducting Rite of Spring. The proud father also mounted a video of Charlie conducting something else when he was only four. Charlie got off to a good start then, but made remarkable progress by the time he was five!

Lately, a video of a three-year-old, identified only as Jonathan, conducting the finale to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has been making the rounds. There are 10 videos in all (as of today) of Jonathan either playing violin or conducting something. I see he showed interest in classical music and started conducting on his own at about eight months of age.

Jonathan is clearly not an ordinary three-year-old. I’m not sure how many children at that age have the attention span to listen to a four-and-a-half minute piece and come to know it as well as he clearly knows the Beethoven. But on the other hand, he and Charlie Loh enable us to make some generalizations about classical music:

  • Children love what becomes familiar. If they hear classical music growing up, they will love it.
  • Because young children know nothing of history, sociology, or class distinctions, the fact that they can love classical music proves that it is not elitist.
  • Children can learn to read music and sing from solfège at an early age. (No surprise there; solfège was first designed as an easy way to teach music to children.)
  • Young children learn new skills much faster and easier than teenagers or adults.
  • After a certain age, it takes longer for something to become familiar and comfortable, and learning it becomes less fun and more of a chore.
  • Therefore, the best time to introduce children to classical music, music reading (and for that matter, their first foreign language) is early in childhood.
  • Children, all children regardless of race or social class, deserve to be exposed to a wide variety of excellent things (classical music and any other good music, art, literature, etc.). They will choose which enthusiasms to carry into adulthood, when developing new enthusiasms for the arts might be more difficult.

What do you think?

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by dcaseyphoto

Classical music at a bar?


According to a story on NPR’s Weekend Edition, “Beethoven and Beer at the Happy Dog,” members of the Cleveland Orchestra have been playing classical chamber music since June 2010 at the Happy Dog, a neighborhood bar on the near-west side of town, under the name Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog. People love it, and the bar is packed every time they play. It gives customers who would never go to Severance Hall a chance to hear classical music and gives the bar customers who would not otherwise come.

It also gives the musicians a chance to make music more spontaneously. Orchestra players must necessarily pay close attention to very small details and subordinate their individual musicality to the ensemble as a whole. As rewarding as that can be, relaxation from strict discipline can be refreshing. Audiences in concert venues see musicians at their most disciplined. Audiences in the bar see them having fun.

The story observes that there is nothing new about taking classical music out of the concert hall and cites a group that played in non-concert venues way back in the 1970s. Actually, it’s much older than that.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra played both symphonies and popular dance music in various summer pleasure gardens during its off season as late as 1835. Classical and popular music were only beginning to be regarded as different kinds of music, and no orchestra provided full-time employment to its members until well into the twentieth century.

The orchestra’s principal violist, Carl Traugott Queisser, owned a pleasure garden called the Kuchengarten. Perhaps best known as one of the three most prominent trombone soloists in Germany, he also played viola in the world’s first professionally viable string quartet, was a member of the town band, and director of two military bands. Dissident members of the town band selected Queisser as their leader. He probably regretted that the resulting incessant legal battles cost him the chance to tour Europe as a traveling virtuoso.

Queisser and the Gewandhaus represent an ordinary fact of life for orchestral musicians in the nineteenth century. Not a one of them could make a living playing for only one ensemble or only one kind of music. Most of them had to make at least part of their living from non-musical activities. There was nothing unusual about orchestra members playing in a tavern or anywhere else they could find. After all, between seasons they still needed to earn a living.

Today’s top professional orchestra players have year-round salaries. Even so, many of them teach, conduct community groups, or play in other ensembles. The main difference between the Gewandhaus orchestra playing in pleasure gardens and Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog is that the Cleveland players do not depend on the bar gig for a living. Playing classical music in venues like that has become highly unusual.

The Cleveland Orchestra players have demonstrated that it’s good for them, good for the bar’s business, and good for the audience to play classical music away from ordinary concert venues. Now, the idea should spread. Cleveland has more than one bar that offers entertainment, and the orchestra has more than six musicians available to play at them. And of course, many other cities besides Cleveland boast of good professional orchestras.

Concert organizations have to work hard to get audiences to come to their concerts to hear the music. Their job would be a lot easier if musicians would regularly take the music to the audience in unusual venues.

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 2

Op. 18 no. 4, in C minor

As I wrote in the introduction to the first article in this series, sonata form is inherently dramatic, but where Haydn and Mozart conceived theirs in terms of comic opera, Beethoven, even in his early works, often sought a more melodramatic or even tragic effect. His music in C minor always displays great dramatic tension.

The opening movement of this quartet is less stormy than many of Beethoven’s C minor movements. The dark but lyrical opening theme flows congenially enough, but Beethoven subjects his material to a number of new harmonies and textures. In fact, this sometimes menacing and passionate movement exhibits a richer texture than the first movements of any of the other op. 18 string quartets.

Oddly enough, this quartet has no slow movement. Its second movement is the scherzo that had become fairly typical for string quarts; the third movement comprises the older minuet that had long formed third movements of symphonies. Both rely heavily on fugal procedures. The scherzo has a light and playful mood, helped along by counterpoint that pointedly breaks lots of rules. In fact, to anyone who understands all of the conventional techniques and rules, it is even funny, like much of Haydn’s music. The minuet returns to the passionate and somber mood of the opening. In fact, Beethoven enhances the disquieting aspect of the movement by instructing that the reprise of the first part be played at a faster tempo.

The quartet concludes with a Haydnesque rondo. The lively main theme, played several times, alternates with a lyrical first episode and a rather ill-tempered second episode. The final appearance of the main theme cheats the listeners’ expectation not once but twice. It begins at a very fast tempo as if it intends to build to a climax. Instead of the climax, it appears to head towards a quiet ending in C major. Again, it switches gears and the quartet ends loudly with a brusque reminder of the central episode.

Op. 18 no. 5, in A major

Beethoven follows the most forceful quartet of the set with the quietest. The opening movement is conventional and almost old-fashioned, except that the second theme is in a minor key instead of the expected major and when the listener expects the opening theme to return after the development, Beethoven delays it. What sound like a scale passage in the cello descending to the tonic key winds up half a step too high, and it takes several measures for everyone to wind up in the right place.

The apparent simplicity of the second movement (a minuet) conceals excellent contrapuntal workmanship. By this time in his career Beethoven felt comfortable enough in his technique and craft that he had no need to call attention to it. The occasional loud or heavily accented passages do not contribute to a stormy mood, as in the C minor string quartet, but rather to a cheerful good time. The third movement, a theme and five variations, likewise exudes fun and, at the end, toys playfully with distant keys before returning gradually to the tonic.

The quartet ends with another sonata movement. Beethoven weaves various textures very skillfully. He allows himself a dramatic moment in the development before ending the quartet very quietly.

Op. 18 no. 6, in B-flat major

Conventionally sonata movements (whether in a piece called a sonata, symphony, string quartet, or whatever else) have the greatest emotional weight in the first movement. In his sixth string quartet, Beethoven experimented with moving the weight to the end. Therefore, the first movement is lively and pleasant, but almost trivial. He provides just enough incidental niceties of texture and modulations to keep it from being boring.

The slow movement, somewhat more substantial, displaying some very resourceful and deft changes in texture. Elegant and graceful, it still lacks really distinguished thematic material. The scherzo shows still more character and originality, with then-unconventional rhythms, the collapse of what seemed to be an exhilarating climax, and other touches of rough comedy.

All of that sets the stage for the finale, subtitled La Malanconia (Melancholy), a sonata form with a slow introduction. The opening adagio immediately begins to explore some weird chromatic, almost atonal harmonies, punctuated with many abrupt changes from soft to loud and back again. Beethoven follows this with a quick dancelike movement. It is curiously conventional, but at the point where it ought to end, Beethoven brings back the eeriness of the adagio. The slow and fast ideas alternate for a while before the fast one wins out. As it unsure it has shaken the slow idea, the quartet gets faster and faster from there to the end.

Conclusion

Except for the one in B-flat major, each of these string quartets rely heavily on particular quartets of Haydn and Mozart as models, although the whole set also shows lessons Beethoven had absorbed from some of their lesser contemporaries. In each case, he falls short of his models. During his early period, he had mastered the basic techniques he used, but had still not quite gotten the hang of the subtleties.

The most experimental of the set, the last quartet, is in many ways the least satisfactory, but it shows great imagination and ambition. At this time of his career, he was a very good composer. Greatness would come once his command of the subtleties matched his ambition.

Again, I call attention to the link for ArchivMusic. If you want a recording of these quartets, or any other classical music, it’s a wonderful source.

An excellent high-school orchestra from Indiana

A friend of mine sent me a link to the video below and said to prepare to be impressed. It is a prize-winning performance of the Carmel (Indiana) High School Symphony Orchestra playing “Jupiter” from The Planets by Gustav Holst. As a result of this performance last May, they were named the Indiana State Orchestra Champion. My friend tells me they also won in 2008 playing the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and “Mambo” from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. These performances are also available on YouTube.
This performance is better than many concerts I have heard by prestigious university orchestras. It is better than a few I have heard by professional orchestras. I am used to hearing young musicians play at this level at the Eastern Music Festival. I would hope that the various all-state high school orchestras would routinely play this well. It blows my mind that a single high school could marshall the talent and discipline to play such difficult music so well.

Congratulations to Carmel High School, not only for the orchestra, but for the amount of support it has obviously gotten from the community and school administration. May it maintain its tradition of excellence for many years to come.

Schoenberg vs Stravinsky

Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky emerged between the two World Wars as leaders of two radically different approaches to writing modern music. Not only rivals, they personally despised each other.

Interviewed by a Barcelona newspaper in 1936, Stravinsky called Schoenberg more of a musical chemist than artist. He acknowledged the importance of Schoenberg’s research. After all, they did expand possibilities of what people might enjoy hearing.

But on the whole, he considered the twelve-tone method very much like Alois Haba’s experiments with quarter-tones. They exist only scientifically. Can anyone make genuine art with either method? Stravinsky thought not.

Schoenberg vented his spleen in unpublished writings discovered among his papers only after his death.

In one, dated 1926, he contrasted his own desire to write music for the future with Stravinsky’s desire to write only the music of today. He also thought that Stravinsky’s use of older music as a model somehow contradicted his supposed view that it was “old-fashioned to regard any work of art as significant for any period beyond the present.”

In Schoenberg’s view, Stravinsky produced nothing more important than, say neckties, while he considered his own music more along the lines of seeking a cure for cancer.

His comment that Stravinsky thought only of satisfying his customers reveals his envy even that early that Stravinsky’s music had won more public acclaim than his own.

As the two men grew old, their mutual contempt did not mellow. In fact, during the last years of Schoenberg’s life, they both lived in Los Angeles and made sure everyone knew that they were ignoring each other.

Perhaps it is as much because of personal hostility as anything else that Stravinsky sought to make use of Schoenberg’s experimentation with tone rows only after Schoenberg died. Even then, he pointedly made his own rows of some other number of notes than twelve and acknowledged only Anton Webern as an inspiration.

Source: Music in the Western World: A History in Documents / selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, pp. 465-67.

Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music

The history of recording has gone through several phases, including cylinders (the first commercial format) and early discs (a less expensive format that opened the market to a wider cross-section of people, perfected in 1888). Electronic recording, which enabled far more accurate reproduction of sound than earlier technologies, appeared in 1927.

According to Harry Smith, important recordings of folk songs were issued in both formats at the end of the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth. Shortly after the First World War, Ralph Peer of Okeh Records took some recording equipment from New York to Atlanta. There, a record dealer asked him to record a circus barker named “Fiddling John Carson” and promised to buy 1000 copies.

To Peer’s taste, the two songs he recorded were so bad that he figured no one else but that one store would ever be interested in it. Okeh Records didn’t even assign the disc a serial number. To his surprise, the day the dealer received his shipment, he called and ordered 15,000. When national sales hit half a million, the company decided there was a national market for similar music. It began issuing what it called “hillbilly records” and “race records. Thus the modern era of commercial folk recordings began.

Smith was an interesting character. An anthropology student at the University of Washington, he visited Berkeley, California, where he was introduced to Woody Guthrie, San Francisco’s artistic and intellectual community, and marijuana. After deciding not to return to college, he began to make experimental films and developed an excellent reputation in that field.

He also began collecting records. While most record buffs of the time specialized in either classical music or jazz, Smith immediately gravitated to “hillbilly” and “race” records, although he despised both terms. By 1950, when he moved to New York, he had thousands of 78s. He also needed money, so he approached Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, and offered to sell his entire collection.

Asch, a kindred spirit whose ambition was to produce an “encyclopedia of sound” from all over the world, instead asked Smith to select some of the highlights for an anthology. Smith chose 84 recordings, all issued between 1927, the beginning of modern recording techniques, and 1932, when the Great Depression killed sales of folk recordings. Asch issued the Anthology of American Folk Music in three volumes of two LPs each in 1952, along with explanatory material that highlighted both Smith’s scholarship and eccentricity.

By that time, Woodie Guthrie and others had been traveling and performing folk music and others for years. Alan Lomax had produced a significant quantity field recordings for the Library of Congress that had called many important folk musicians who had never recorded commercially to public attention.

But Smith offered something very different. A California hippie long before the hippie movement was born, he made his selection according to his own rather subversive view of what America ought to be. HIs was vision that ignored the rigid separation of black and white people in favor of  mutually influential black and white musical cultures.

Smith shed light on a world folk music stranger and more exciting than anything known before. Younger musicians seized on this new revelation and ran with it. Therefore the Anthology of American Folk Music directly inspired the “folk revival” that in turn launched the rock revolution, which broke completely from older popular music that had developed in a fairly orderly way since colonial times.

The Smithsonian Institution acquired the entire catalog of Folkways Records after Asch’s death and continues to make it available. Its reissue of the  Anthology of American Folk Music on CD in 1997, with pitch correction and elimination of surface noise, won two Grammy awards.

Smith’s foreword and some of his annotations can be found in Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 502-05.

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 1

The music Beethoven wrote during his first few years in Vienna shows a young man first learning the basics of the Viennese style and then trying to make his distinctive mark in it. He deliberately produced works in all of the genres current there, including six string quartets written between 1798 and 1800, published as op. 18. By that time, he had learned the basics of the style of Mozart and Haydn and had started the process of transforming it.

In the sonata forms of the earlier masters, the recapitulation, as we call it now, presented all of the thematic material in the tonic key in a way that provided the movement with symmetry. Sonata form is inherently dramatic, but Mozart and Haydn conceived of it in terms of their comic operas.

Beethoven began to conceive many of his themes in such a way that they could reappear in the recapitulation much louder than in the exposition. The return in the tonic became less a matter of symmetry of form than of triumphal transformation. He was beginning to work on a musical equivalent of tragedy or melodrama rather than comedy. To that end, of course, much else was radical in his sonata forms than just the recapitulations. Here, in order of composition rather than publication, are Beethoven’s first three string quartets

Op. 18 no. 3, in D major

Quite understandably, the first attempt at any new project is likely to be tentative and rely heavily on earlier models. Beethoven’s task in this piece was to learn how to write string quartets, not to make any kind of personal statement. It shows thorough knowledge of Haydn’s latest and best quartets and also draws on aspects of a couple of his London symphonies.

Even in his least adventuresome string quartet, Beethoven explores some unconventional harmonic practices, again showing familiarity with Haydn’s recent work. For example, the slow movement is not in conventional key such as G major (the subdominant, the fourth scale degree). Instead, it is in B-flat major, the sixth scale degree). In the third movement, where the second theme would customarily occur in the dominant (a major key on the fifth scale degree), Beethoven’s is in the mediant (a minor key on the third scale degree).

While the D major quartet has understandably not achieved the level of popularity of the more mature quartets, it is quite beautiful. Quietly cheerful and unpretentious, it exhibits a capacity for flowing melodies and a relaxed lyricism people often don’t recognize in Beethoven’s music.

Op. 18 no. 1, in F major

Where the D major quartet has the effect of quiet lyricism based on melody, that of the F major quartet depends more on rhythm and energy. The first movement attempts to emulate Haydn’s characteristic humor, although Beethoven could not quite bring it off yet. It has more tension and abrupt changes than Haydn’s similar works.

The second movement, Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, is unusual for a number of reasons. The Italianate style of the movement recalls Mozart, but neither Mozart nor Haydn composed very many slow movements in a minor key, nor did composers often choose 9/8 for a time signature. Early 18th-century composers used “affettuoso” frequently, but by Beethoven’s time the word had gone out of fashion. Later in the 19th century, “appassionato” would become common, but it still unusual when he first used it. Used together, the two words suggest that Beethoven wanted to call attention to how emotional the music is.

Finding the right tone for the movement following such emotional music can be tricky. The Scherzo in this quartet seems somewhat distant and impersonal, and its trio includes an almost grotesque leaping figure. Quite interesting in its own right, it also provides some separation between the intensity of the slow movement and the leisurely rondo. Beethoven must have been pleased with this finale, because he reused some of its most characteristic techniques in later works.

Op. 18 no. 2, in G major

This quartet differs greatly from the preceding one in both mood and structure. Instead of one short theme constantly developing, as in the F major quartet, the G major quartet opens with a series of phrases with no particular similarity that, nonetheless, coalesce into a very convincing theme. One idea cheerfully follows another in a movement with no dramatic contrasts in mood.

The slow movement begins with an ornamented theme presented in a massive and stately manner, with which the fast central section contrasts greatly. Haydn did something of the kind once, but it was certainly novel. The theme of the fast part comes from the cadential phrase that ends the opening part, so the Adagio tempo returns without trouble.

A good-natured Scherzo and a lively Finale round out Beethoven’s closest approach to the urbanity of so many 18th-century quartets. While not as profound as Mozart’s or Haydn’s best work, this unassuming and not particularly ambitious work nonetheless delights for its quiet beauty and charm.

ArchivMusic offers several different recordings of these quartets. Readers can conveniently get to them with the button just to the right of the first paragraph.