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A Mathematician

First of all, on the fundamental relationship between mathematics and music: yes, the chromatic scale is based on simple geometric ratios, but beyond this (and a few other things perhaps), I think saying “Music comes from mathematics” or “Music is founded upon mathematics,” or anything similar, are more subtle statements than one might let on. It’s very philosophically grounded in whether one thinks mathematics can exist to be touched upon without having defined it first, or whether one sees mathematics as a lens through which physical and theoretical phenomena can be analyzed. Certainly mathematics has played an important part in serialism, which utilizes set theory and algebra, but can we say it has played a similar role in either the creation or musical essence of a Beethoven piano sonata? Certainly we can analyze the music in a mathematical fashion, but does this make it fundamentally an object of mathematics?

There are two unsupportable (because nothing is so black and white, right?) positions on this topic:

a) you are a quantophiliac, who looks for deterministic mathematical relationships to aesthetics, forgetting that music is art and therefore cannot be fully defined by the sum of any set of empirical observations.

b) you are a quantophobe, for whom mystical inspiration is all and you simply ignore the fact that mathematics is often a useful tool in achieving and describing aesthetic objectives.

Certainly, composers have taken direct inspiration from mathematics. Bartók used golden mean proportions, Ligeti used strange attractors and other fractal phenomena, etc. Music is not mathematics any more than architecture is mathematics, but as Thelonious Monk said, all musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.

I have also wondered if there is not a musical connection to playing chess via a (subconscious?) mathematical ability: e.g. Prokofiev apparently was a very good player.

Certain mathematicians have remarked upon proofs, etc., with the words “elegant” and “beautiful,” with some openly suspicious of any series of equations that shows too much sweat and not enough grace as being on the wrong path.

I have, however, been bored to tears by articles in scholarly musical journals going through “permutations of sets” blah blah fucking blah! For an elite who might claim they can actually hear such things in a work and follow them, fine.

You can interpret anything mathematically (with probably mixed results) but what is the point? You can interpret things however you want, and call it a world view. But that would be ignoring the world, and the various ways that people experience existence, let alone art.

There are composers who probably use a mathematical-like mindset for composition. But there are plenty of composers who probably couldn’t give a flying fuck about such methods (Birtwistle springs to mind, and man have you seen one of his scores?).

I think it is a fairly established view that although Schoenberg was the developer of serialism, others soon surpassed him as far as innovation goes, and Schoenberg is paradoxically one of the most influential and best known or notorious modern composers, yet his compositions are little known or played (but thoroughly analyzed scholarly). Personally I prefer his pre-serialist atonal expressionist period as in Pierrot Lunaire with the hilarious “Sprechgesang”. As far as serialism goes, I am more inclined to listen to Webern and Stravinsky, not to mention Stockhausen’s particular spatial electronic serialism and Ligeti’s micropolyphony, both somehow emerging from serialism.

Personally I think Schoenberg should have resisted the Germanic cultural impulse to systematize and bring “Ordnung” out of the Expressionist chaos.

I mean, I understand the impulse, but I remain somewhat sceptical of it. A composer of immense power like Karl Amadeus Hartmann evolved more out of the pre-dodecaphonic Schoenberg than from the “12-tone method”. So too did Alban Berg. Early Hindemith also shows the possibilities.

But allow me to contradict myself! I still like the Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto is a fun work, not to mention Moses und Aron, and I can with difficulty agree that the 12-tone method allows you to sound Expressionist, and yet allow you to show some sense behind the sound.

The deeper question is: does it matter if you can show the sense behind the sound, if the finished product is … frankly … dull?

Pierre Boulez described him as an heroic failure. There’s a lot of truth in that description and it pretty much applies to Boulez the composer, too.

Unlike Boulez, however, Schoenberg was a very great man, a bona fide genius, and did something that absolutely had to be done. It took stupendous talent, courage, and strength of mind, and because of all this his life was blighted … such a very lonely path that met with incredulity and contempt.

His output is very mixed I think (I say that humbly) but there are magnificent things of the highest order.

Amy Winehouse has never heard of Claude Vivier

Bored by Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Tippett and Tchaikovsky? Try Claude Vivier! Never heard of him? Neither had I, but when I saw the announcement of a DVD from De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam my curiosity was aroused and I ordered it. Those Dutch are producing the most astonishing array of new opera productions. And I always saw them as a dull and unimaginative tribe. Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse Opera, has become one of my favourite directors since I saw his Ring, now my favourite Ring video, shoving the Harry Kupfer/Daniel Barenboim off its pedestal, at least in the video category.

I can’t possible give you a blow-by-blow report of the opera Kopernikus I watched yesterday. It is not called an opera, but a “ritual opera of death”. I never heard any of the singers, nor the conductor, who, surprisingly, took his applause in a protestant minister’s outfit, his real occupational garb. The performance took place in a cavernous old building, former warehouse or factory or something with a stage-like rectangle covered by a deep layer of sand, matching the general lighting throughout! Same with the costumes; very thick sheets of heavy felt. It might be moulded foam, I couldn’t tell, which the singers use skilfully to wrap themselves in, or their fellow actors. The “furniture” sets are wooden crates.

All this is mostly the background, my eyes were busy following the action. No orchestra, but musicians, in costume and make-up, are on stage, acting while playing their instruments. One brilliant slide trombonist doing a duo with the bass actor-singer, even while flat on his back. The female violinist moved all over the sand, wearing a billowy grey outfit with a very long train, and of course no stand for her notes. It is almost an hour of music she has to memorise. A few woodwind players, percussionists and a solo piano complete the “orchestra”. The music is not as strange as I had expected from a student of Ligeti and Stockhausen; of course I won’t walk around humming it.

Watching the singers gave my eyes more to do. Singing with the open hand occasionally tapping the lips to vibrate the sound created something new, not unpleasant to hear. A soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass, plus the narrator completed the cast. I have to include the musicians in the cast, because they were just as skilful actors as the singers. The language is “invented” but a running translation in English helps tremendously to let me know what is going on.

I think I shall watch Götterdämmerung tomorrow, give myself a day of respite from Claude Vivier, and then maybe his Marco Polo during the weekend.

Anybody seriously interested in new music, new composers, new ways to be a spectator and listener of an exciting experience, do try this DVD. Also it would be great to see a gay composer getting more recognition for a change.

All I need to add is that even Stockhausen thought this guy was weird.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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