Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sheets Decomposing

Zarzycki Mazourka cover
Publishing music is a strange business. Trying to get hold of sheet music of a lesser-known work is tricky. If the composition is no longer protected by copyright laws (which are different here and across the Atlantic), often the best bet is to find a PDF file online, either for free or as a benefit of belonging to a "club" that specializes in scanning out-of-print and other old material. I have often wondered why it is so easy to print a book on demand (much of the giant selection of is produced this way) and have it at one's doorstep in a couple of days, yet waiting for sheet music can take forever. Early last winter I decided to search for a copy of a French piece for solo violin which I had learned soon after its publication in 1950s. I placed five orders, two domestically from businesses which advertised the work being available through them, and three from European sources. In a couple weeks I got an email from a domestic distributor, saying the composition wasn't in stock but would arrive later. One European source refused to send the four-page work to America as the publisher had a representative here. I waited and waited. Another online store over there said the sonatina was "unavailable" but in three months a copy was sent to me from London. Then, a domestic source sent me the music five months later, on the same date when the first American store informed me that the work was "out-of-print." At the end, I was the proud owner of two brand-new copies, to replace the torn original.

The French used to print music on paper high in ground wood, similar to what you would find in your Daily, just a little thicker. Oversized, the sheets would soon appear as if they had been through a great war. At first musicians used "glue paper" to fortify the page edges and rebuild corners to facilitate page turns. Later plastic tape took over but it turned yellow in a couple of years, then fell off. Publishers in other countries weren't much better, and Russian editions were even worse than the French. The Soviet system couldn't care less about copyright law and as a large number of my countrymen visited Leningrad and Moscow, a lot of "illegal" sheet music of Western composers ended up back home for almost nothing. A tourist didn't have a great selection of merchandise to choose from: sheet music and LP recordings were very popular in addition to the one liter bottle of vodka the Finnish customs would allow.

Groundwood-based paper had an advantage to more expensive pulp product where the fibers are separated chemically, the stuff in finer books and magazines. The old stuff bends more easily and even large books of music are easy to open. We have among others a collection of all the popular concertos from early 1900s  as one publication. Even the thick piano part opens up without an effort. Compare that to today's Fritz Kreisler Favorites album which won't stay open no matter what magic tricks one performs. Ivan Galamian used to get mad at me, as he insisted that I played his version of the Kreutzer Etudes: during the lesson the book wouldn't stay open. Not that I had spent too much time on the material, but it was somewhat embarrassing to have the music close itself after a few measures. He might have been hard of hearing but this was a dead giveaway. I still blame the high-quality paper…

The old scans often include images of the back cover(s) with advertisements of what the publishers thought to be important works at the time. It comes as no surprise that we have never heard of nine out of ten composers listed. Age isn't kind to composers, or authors of books for that matter. Getting a publisher never guaranteed lasting fame or success. Yet those works were widely performed at one time, which is evident from old concert programs. A composer's own favorite work didn't often match public opinion. Max Bruch was convinced that his second violin concerto was his best composition. He eventually refused to see any violinists who wanted to play for him, as they all wanted his input on the ever-popular G-minor first one. Heifetz was one of the few champions of the second concerto: perhaps his recording of it discouraged others from playing it and becoming a staple. He "ruined" the Conus and Glazounov concertos, not to mention many by lesser-known composers, by recording them so superbly. I was surprised to find a PDF file of Bruch's third violin concerto as it doesn't appear on any list. I played through it and it isn't the composer's best effort, although decent enough to deserve an occasional performance. There are a lot of treasures among the scans of long-forgotten works. A student of mine recently performed a beautiful Prayer by Henry Hadley, who had been a conductor of the local orchestra long ago. The young lady's father had discovered the old print somewhere.

An email from an online sheet music store (the physical ones have just about all disappeared) recently presented a question: What Exactly IS Urtext? Needless to say, they were having a sale on Henle Urtext Editions. The explanation they gave was somewhat vague as that title is used as a marketing gimmick, as a sign of something "better" than normal. As our library has numerous Urtext versions of the J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas, plus quite a bit of other such material, I am somewhat skeptical of these editions. Composers have always made mistakes when writing their manuscripts in ink and even many printed first versions have obvious errors in them. The wonderful short Sonata Op.1 by Karen Khachaturian has a missing accidental in the violin part in the beautiful slow movement. As much of the material is written as a canon, the piano first plays the correct version and the violinist should notice the mistake immediately. The recording by Heifetz hurts one's ears as he plays what the print says. No one had the courage to tell him he was wrong.

A slur for a string player means two different things: a bowing or a phrasing. To everyone else it is always the latter. Unless the composer was an accomplished violinist, a work cannot usually be played as indicated. We know that Bach played the violin among other instruments, but primarily he was an organist. Obviously no one takes the long slurs in Wagner or Richard Strauss as indications of bowings, although I have known a conductor who thought otherwise. Galamian published the first modern Bach edition where all dynamics are as Bach wrote them (a few echo effects) and any guidance or help to possible phrasing are left out. However, he offers us fingerings, and the slurs are not consistent with the manuscript. There is a messy copy of Bach's original at the end of the book but that is of little benefit, just more of a curiosity item. I much prefer Joachim-Moser or Flesch editions as underneath the edited version, a clear printed copy of Bach's markings is shown. A violinist can easily base his/her interpretation on the lower line but at the same time see what one of these old master fiddlers was thinking and why they made the changes they did. Starting with an unmarked edition of Bach with permanently discourage all but the brightest students, or make the teacher work overtime with his pencil.

To me any edition without fingerings or bowings would be a blessing. The more famous a violinist the editor was, the stranger the markings usually are. Most of them had been spoon-fed the works as children and they seldom gave any thought to why they used a certain fingering or bowing. Yes, David Oistrakh played a beautiful Beethoven concerto, yet his markings in that composition, and many others, are odd and defy logic. Zino Francescatti was a fabulous virtuoso and outplayed everyone else in much of the repertoire, yet he decided to alter compositions and many of his fingerings are without real purpose, other than perhaps enabling him to exhibit his incredible vibrato and "fat" sound. Fritz Kreisler was famous for never playing the markings which he published. If you examine the music carefully, you'll notice that the fourth finger indication is almost absent. He wanted to sell a lot of his compositions and arrangements, and knew that most of the potential customers had weak pinkies. Some of the more useful editions are by violinists who never made it big, or weren't child prodigies, and thus had to be more analytical.

What we need is an store for music, with print-on-demand and an option for no-frills editions without any edits. Better yet, have all the music available on touch screen display, allowing markings to be inserted and stored for printing or viewing with a similar device. This would be truly an orchestra librarian's  or a pedagogue's dream!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Swiss Army Knives

About ten days ago I was busy repairing a watch and grabbed a rather large Swiss Army knife, to use one of its sharp blades. Sure enough the unthinkable happened and I almost lost my left thumb. Quickly applied pressure for twenty minutes or so reduced the bleeding but it took longer than that to wipe off all the blood from the table and floor. The left thumb is not very important when playing the violin; however I was happy to realize that no major nerve was damaged in spite of the deep cut. Although combining many features in one tool can be handy, it does none of its intended tasks well. Enclosed is a picture of a Wenger $1,400 monster with 87 implements and 141 functions. The Giant Knife weighs two pounds (almost a kilogram), so I don't think it would make a useful addition to my tool and knife collection. Victorinox and Wenger are the two manufacturers of Swiss Army knives. After competing for a hundred years, the former bought the latter in 2005, promising to keep both brands alive.

We seem to be fascinated by products that perform multiple tasks. Today's cellular phones, especially smart phones, are a good example of this. Often it is necessary to read the manual before learning how to perform the primary function the phone: placing a call. If dialing is done with a slide-out  QWERTY keyboard, one needs a magnifying glass to see the numbers. Of course frequently called numbers can be turned into icons with a person's picture, but that is not an easy procedure for someone past 50. Countless times I've had to help people with muting the ringer or adjusting the volume. Naturally most manufacturers follow their own logic as to how this is done. Even turning the device on and off isn't always obvious.

Recently I read a study which claimed that today's younger people are shying away from actually talking to each other on the telephone. More often they prefer texting which forces the "conversation" to be short and the reply isn't usually immediate. Other option is to use a social network such as Facebook. A private message via that service has replaced emails for many. When electronic mail became common, advice for good etiquette was to keep messages short. Telegrams from your parents' era first became email, then instant messages and now texting. Instead of saying "you are so funny" or "I enjoy your sense of humor", a "lol" or a smiley will do. Most of us use a computer to access email and social networks but this all can be done with a smartphone. Again, it can and is done, but not with the same ease as with proper equipment. The phone has become today's Swiss knife, with more and more functions added in every new model. Finnish Nokia just introduced a 12 MP camera with the largest sensor in a phone. HD video has been taken for granted for some time.

Phones and other devices using Apple or Android systems do brisk business with small add-on programs or gadgets, taking a sizeable cut from paid purchases. These third party applications often leave a lot to be desired; also the same theme is repeated over and over again. How many HP12C emulators do we need? A stopwatch needs only one good design as its sole function is to measure time elapsed. Occasionally I use Nokia's Linux-based N800's tuner and metronome if nothing else is available and check the mail or the stock market on my 3rd Generation iPod Touch. Since I am blessed, or cursed, with perfect pitch and my inner pulse is almost as accurate as the electronic device for tempo, and I much prefer seeing text on a 25-inch screen than trying to make out words on the little device's less than four, none of this technology is any more essential than the corkscrew on the Swiss Army knife. I also have a collection of fine cameras and would use the one included in a phone only when a picture is important to have and there is no real camera at hand. It is impossible to attach a decent zoom lens to a slim phone body without the result looking like the knife pictured above. Yes, while killing time waiting at an airport, a little device might become handy to read the news, and in case the flight was delayed or canceled, finding alternate connections would help. I still wouldn't use the phone to purchase my tickets or make hotel reservations while planning a trip, although I admit having done that while on the road. Avatar, the popular film, looks amazingly vivid on my daughter's Samsung Vibrant's AMOLED screen, but four inches is still four inches and I have to keep the phone close to my face to enjoy the picture.

To a point a personal computer is also a Swiss knife of sorts, expected to perform all kinds of tasks, including music, photo and video editing. This has resulted in more and more complex operating systems. The first computers I had in early 1980s could not multi-task nor show graphics. Online services were few and they worked at snail's pace. Color wasn't available, neither was email as we know it. But the computers were also much simpler and crashed less often. Nobody expected to see what a document looked like until it came out of a noisy dot-matrix printer. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) didn't become a reality until few years later. Originally developed for XEROX, it was first adapted by Apple and later the PC camp. We early users didn't know what we were missing and yet the technology was exciting and life went on. It would be interesting to see today's youngsters stuck with an early computer: it would be a head-scratcher for sure.

But let's go back to the ever inflating operating systems: when I downloaded the upgrade to iPod Touch which made limited multitasking possible, the device became less reliable than before. Windows has always had its share of problems. I started with Version 2 which was useless in any practical sense. Much later Vista became an embarrassment to Microsoft and although Win 7 is a great improvement, I have never seen so many blue screens of death as in the two machines here that run it. While writing this a big chunk of text was lost to the blues: if I need to be certain that my text is safe, I either use an XP computer or a Linux one which almost never has issues on any kind. Her leaving for college any day now, I made sure my youngest got a nice MacBook Pro. Expensive, yes, but worth it for the lack of headaches.

A couple days ago, out came the SIM card from a fancy smartphone and went into a much simpler Nokia N96. Theoretically it provides the same benefits as its fancier cousins but it drains the battery much less and thus I don't have to recharge it every day. It has a two-way slide: one side for dedicated buttons for multimedia, the other for an old-fashioned dialing pad. I can still take 5 MP pictures if needed and browse the web. Texting isn't quite as convenient as with a full keyboard and the predictive mode only works for English. Minor annoyances: I can always send a regular email from a real computer or the iPod, using a portable MiFi hotspot.

Next time the real tools will come out instead of the Victorinox. The latter will be used for emergencies only. With the phones the jury is still out.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Musical Theater

Those readers who have followed this blog for a while may remember my initial excitement, or sense of curiosity, about the Berlin Philharmonic's decision to make their concerts available to all via the Internet. Behind this obviously were the high-definition broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters worldwide. Against many skeptical opinions they turned out to be a successful venture as far as audiences' interest was concerned, although I don't know if the financial picture has been equally rosy.

An orchestral experience is quite different from an opera with its scenery and acting, even if the latter has left a lot to be desired. A gigantic soprano hardly resembles a gazelle, after all. The French, who always have possessed an eye for beauty, solved this problem by inserting attractive ballet numbers in the midst of singing. So far an orchestra concert has been a rather boring affair visually. A listener can bring a pair of binoculars but normally sees a frumpy and grumpy looking group on stage. Without such optical aid, an eagle-like vision is not common with seniors who form a bulk of an audience.

With televised concerts people have seen more than enough close-ups of certain principal players and the good-looking section players who fill the role of eye-candy. I'm not sure if this benefits the music which can be most enjoyable even if unseen, the case with recordings and radio broadcasts. All the concerts of the Berlin group I observed made me all too aware of which musicians took playing seriously and which ones preferred to fake. Too many close-ups made it difficult to pay attention to the music itself. This is the difference between a book and a movie: the former is captivating and the reader admires the author's clever and skillful choice of words. The film may follow the book closely but we really walk away remembering the plot, visual effects and faces of the actors but little else. A so-so book may be a box-office success; a television show is likely to be a hit if the script is dumb. In music the best-selling violinist is André Rieu, based on his successful specials on television and shows on large stages à la the Three Tenors. These performances in turn are popular to a great degree thanks to the attractive young ladies in his orchestra. Is he the best fiddler around? Hardly, but he produces a heck of a show. Music itself becomes secondary again.

So, I lost interest in Berlin's broadcasts, at least as a season subscriber. But of course I wouldn't get a season ticket to hear any orchestra or opera, or watch every play a theater decides to offer. A ballet would interest me only occasionally. In Berlin's case I was also bothered by the rotation of principals. The orchestra never informed potential listeners who would be playing the flute or which one of the many concertmasters would be on stage. Take my word: they may all play adequately but naturally some are better than others. Seniority also enters into the picture, just like it does in education. Sometimes best classes are given by young and enthusiastic adjuncts, whereas lectures by burnt-out professors, anxiously awaiting their retirement, can be boring and dreaded by students.

It is no secret that these are trying economic times for many people, and the arts are certainly not immune to this. Actually the downward spiral for classical music has been occuring for a long time and is unrelated to economics. When recitals became unfashionable decades ago, it caused no big fuss. Who cared if a violinist or pianist worked his tail off and had just a handful of listeners in the audience? I remember a Finnish singer, who at some point was a Wagnerian soprano in demand at the Met, having had to cancel her voice recital in a town in her homeland because only four tickets had been sold in advance, and this was a long time ago. Now that big organizations, orchestras, opera and ballet companies and theaters are in trouble, the press and other media are reacting. Expenses have skyrocketed and incomes plummeted, a bad mix. Much of the blame lies on unsustainable contracts, diminished giving and above all, fancy new venues. The latter is not unique to the arts: today's New York Times has an article about huge public debt from sports stadiums that no longer exist. Here in Seattle, the Kingdome, at one time home for three professional sports teams, was demolished ten years ago but still has a debt burden of $83 million which has to be paid back in 2016.

Orchestras which are staying in their true and trusted auditoriums are generally much better off than their counterparts in new structures. Thus the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra have an advantage to, let's say, the Philadelphia Orchestra which has seen an audience dwindle with their move to the Kimmel Hall, although the new building was supposed to do the opposite. Other orchestras in a similar situation initially saw an increase in attendance but a decade later a "been-there-seen-that" attitude has taken hold, especially if the hall is acoustically inferior. Typically when a new concert hall opens, the media praises it to high heavens and the problems that should have been obvious, surface much later. This is not much different from a doomed marriage: couples can find no fault in each other in the beginning but later wonder if they had a screw loose when they decided to get hitched.

The Philadelphia group is in a financial pickle, although not in as deep doo-doo as Detroit. During Eugene Ormandy's long tenure their sound was legendary, which today seems humorous since they used to perform in an "inferior" Academy of Music for a whole century. Counting on this reputation they have decided to market themselves, in the style of the Met, in movie theaters across the country. This could be a gross miscalculation. They have to guarantee a minimum to the theaters which may or may not have a sizable number of people attending. If the model proves successful (the Berlin Philharmoniker is expanding the web series to theaters as well), other orchestras will no doubt follow. To an ordinary listener all decent orchestras sound pretty much the same and competition then would be won by the group with the most attractive musicians making the most appealing "moves" during close-ups. I think this all is a ploy to claim that the number of the groups' listeners has grown exponentially. This figure might be useful when raising funds but, in my humble opinion, will not produce a large increase in income. The worst result from Philadelphia's and Berlin's success would be a decrease in attending performances of a local orchestra and resulting slow and painful death.

I'll continue to listen to music at home. I don't have to see Heifetz live (it is far too late for that) to enjoy his amazing performances of such concertos as Conus and Glazounov. None of today's glamorous babes or handsome young dudes is able to approach that level of fiddling, although seeing them twenty times larger than life on a screen might do the trick for some. Too bad the mandatory world premiere is like a preview in the theater; at home I can listen to exactly what I want.

André Rieu in South Africa