Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rock-climbing and "empty virtuosity"

Wow. Christmas 2013 is already over. This morning, I was at my wit's end, drinking strong coffee and wondering exactly when I signed up for the Time Pass Acceleration Service and how I came to make such a regrettable decision. It was not a very good thought, especially while I was still recovering from mental trauma over Alfred Schnittke's charming version of Silent Night for violin and piano. 

So yesterday, the day which supposedly symbolizes love of family and friends, along with ancient Winter Solstice traditions that were moved to a later date in order to brainwash and convert pagan tribes, scare tactics of deluded "news" reporters to fulfill their agenda of eventually ruling the world and renaming it Bullshit Mountain (yes, I'm talking about you, Fox News doomsayers, and your fictitious "war on Christmas"), and not to mention, rampant consumerism and unnecessary forest depletion, I find myself thinking about something else entirely. I start remembering a topic discussed in my Canadian Repertoire class a little while back. Our prof, Dean Burry (who is an insightful, award-winning composer, and one of my favorite teachers), opened up a discussion about the accessibility of new music and its effects on the public ear. He brought up the music of R. Murray Schafer, and made us listen to his second string quartet. I'll just say that the second movement is crazy. Actually that's an understatement - it's insane as fuck. Click the red words to find out exactly why. 

If you listen to this piece, you would probably realize that despite the screaming, yelling, weird-fest going on, the piece is still quite easy to relate to. You could easily tap your foot to the rhythms, and feel the drive of the melodies, however atonal they are, through the energy of the musicians. 

After we listened to the piece, Dean gave an analogy about accessibility. He said that the concepts of music are like the rock-climbing wall at the gym. Most pop music, he explained, is structured like putting a ladder on the wall and climbing to the top. Yes, you do get straight to the top, but where is the satisfaction of actually working to get there? In terms of music, there remains no challenge to understand and discover the ideas behind the music, as it's too simple and, consequently, uninteresting. On the other hand, Dean explained, it would be completely unreasonable to remove all the "rocks" from the rock climbing wall, as it would be totally impossible to get to the top and therefore be completely devoid of satisfaction. This is the effect of completely inaccessible music, like Tom Johnson's clarinet trio, or the music composed in the movie Untitled, which you can read a little more about here. An ideal balance is something every composer should strive for - a rock-climbing wall with as many rocks as possible, and maybe a ladder or two when the going gets way too tough, because not everyone is an Olympic athlete or a contestant on American Ninja Warrior. 

Which brings me to my next point. Why is the so-called "classical music" world (a term I have come to detest) somehow not as attractive to lay people as the "pop music" world, even though there is a lot of  "classical music" that is indeed, like rock-climbing walls with many rocks as possible? A reason I have come up with is that there are far too many puristic prudes out there in the world of the music I play and love, who want to chop down every ladder and remove every rock-hold in sight in order to "stay true" to the stylistic qualities of this music - in composition and performance practice alike. They rip out every instance of accessibility in the process of preserving what they call "true" music. They also have infinitely less tolerance for new takes on old music than their "pop" industry counterparts, panning these new versions for containing nothing but what they call "empty virtuosity" as well as many other pretentious names. For example, not one person is angry about the countless covers, medleys and mashups of Michael Jackson hits on YouTube, if you don't count the occasional butthurt comments, but classical music critics are all up-in-the-arms about Sergio Tiempo's arrangement of Chopin's √Čtude op.25 no.6 just because he committed the "cardinal sin" of making a medley out of the absolutely flawless and irreproachable works of the ever so virtuous, out-of-this-world composer that was Frederic Chopin. 

Individuality of interpretation is also killed by these prudes, as they believe particular styles of playing should not ever surface and be kept under tight control, especially for young performers. From personal experience, they usually think this playing is too fast, too clear, too mechanical, and emotionless. Though this may be true in some cases, I completely disagree that this is a category that should encompass me and every other performer in my generation. Recently, I watched Menahem Pressler perform with the New Orford String Quartet on a celebration concert for his 90th birthday.  I was extremely impressed by the depth conveyed by Mr. Pressler, let alone the fact that he was able to play at all at his age. However, I really did not appreciate the response he managed to elicit from an old musician couple in the audience, as told by a friend of mine who was also at the concert. The woman said, "Wow, that concert was quite something. His sense of emotion was impeccable!", to which her husband replied, "Well, yes. So much emphasis on technique these days. I don't think any pianist under 30 today can ever play half as good as him!"

Really? "Half as good" as missing quarter of the notes? "Half as good" as coming in late when playing chamber music? And as for playing the "emphasis on technique" card, though I agree that technique isn't everything, the fact is often lost on these "ruin of true music" fatalists that technique PRECEDES emotion. You can't convey your emotions effectively if you don't have a good control of technical skill. I applaud Mr. Pressler's emotion, effort and poise at his age, and there is a lot to learn from that, but there really shouldn't be any comparisons between his playing and the playing of my generation. If performers around his age show remarkably great depth of emotion but messes up all the technical parts, it's genius, but if anyone under 30 exhilarates and "wows" their audiences with virtuoso repertoire, the jealous prudes would decry them before congratulating them, if they do at all. The double standard for performance practices - created by accepting emotion/depth without good technique, but condemning music that makes us compelled and say "wow" instead of "touching the depths of our soul" or providing us any inwardly "emotional" experience - is proving lethal to the marketability of classical music. After all, "wow" is usually an important emotional experience for most people.

I think another thing is that, due to the unquestionable and awe-inspiring beauty of the works of the great composers, we assume that they were like saints - conservative and virtuous, conducting a no-nonsense approach to both life and music. This view could not be more wrong. Liszt was always after making his music accessible - he actually invented the modern-day recital. He indulged in what the prudes of today dub "empty virtuosity" when displayed by performers less than half their age. Also, he embraced controversy just like intellectual people today. 

In terms of mentality-vs-music contrasts, nobody but Mozart takes the cake. He and his family wrote countless letters about poop to each other. They were irredeemably obsessed with it, and Mozart even wrote a whole six-part canon called 'Kiss My Ass' - note that it's about the literal meaning of the phrase, not the figurative. A recent article shows that, quite unbelievably, J.S. Bach was a pretty bad boy, too. You don't have to click the red words in this paragraph if you don't want to (but you know you really want to now, don't you?). 

All else aside, we must remember that the great composers were human too, and refrain from incorrectly labeling them with a holier-than-thou image. Because of this image, we assume that they would hate any little change in music if they were alive today, and those of us who are particularly patriotic to this cause happily hold up flags to aid in their false representation, asserting that the composers "would've wanted it this way". This is sad and stifling for the classical music world, to say the least. Advancements in any field rely on acceptance, and stifling any style does not actually hurt the musician in question's following, but instead serves to give a very bad, "boring" rap about that musician's field, failing to attract new audiences. 

So, to all the foreboders who scrunch their noses up at the evolution and attempts at accessibility of classical music, yet quite hypocritically throw their hands up in desperation crying about the "death of classical music", please stop. Seriously. If classical music is really dying, you're the ones killing it. Just: 1. Sit back, 2. Relax, and 3. Try to refrain from telling other classical music performers, fans, and devotees what they should and shouldn't like. Oh, and while you're working on that, you're welcome to kiss my ass anytime. 

Alas, my rant comes to an end. Hopefully there are other things on my mind at the end of the day besides rocks, ladders and ghosts of composers past... 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tempo Primo: First weeks in my college city

So it has been some weeks since I came to Toronto to study at the Glenn Gould School of Music, and time seems to have flown by. I have so much work to do, coupled with the predisposed anxiety of your typical noob in town. But everything is slowly piecing itself together bit by bit, and here I am, blogging.

In the past, I have many a time romanticized about leaving Vegas and starting a new life. But I must say, after finally getting my wish, the feels started to get to me. I was plagued with the crashing realization that time has gone by way too fast. It seemed just like yesterday since the end of August was eons away.

Due to the monotony of my everyday life, I couldn't wait for change. But I didn't realize how much I would miss that life, and how much anxiety would kick in about the unknown nature of my new life. My cat Ayu (who is practically the little sister I never had - no joke, though it may sound a bit corny) is living outside, and I worry about her every day. I will also miss the smell of my home, my piano and the state park next to my home, Red Rock Canyon.

On the upside though, it's not like I'll never see Vegas again, or that my reasons for wanting to leave have not been rendered void. In fact, they were quite real. I have always wanted to live in a big city, where there are a lot of things to do, places to perform, performances to attend, musical excitement, etc. This is what I've ultimately always wanted - a much-needed new chapter in the story of my life.

So far, I do not have any complaints. I enjoy walking to school, practicing and my classes. The only thing that gets to my nerves is that, because the basement at school flooded last summer, about ten practice rooms are out of use. The lounge is crowded with waiting students every afternoon that it may seem like we'll die of unemployment without a practice room. On second thoughts, I probably would...

So one day I came home and found out the dishwasher doesn't work. Even after calling a guy to fix it three times, I'm still washing my dishes by hand today, after three whole weeks. I have resolved to think that the electrician is a total nut-job, and the dishwasher is permanently defective.

Speaking of defective, this sitch reminds me of a particularly devious poem by one of my favorite childhood authors Hilaire Belloc, which is about Henry King, a poor boy who died because of a string fetish...

The Chief Defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of String.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.

Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
“There is no Cure for this Disease.

“Henry will very soon be dead.”
His Parents stood about his Bed
Lamenting his Untimely Death,
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,

Cried, “Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch, and Tea
Are all the Human Frame requires…”
With that, the Wretched Child expires.

I guess my recent experiences with the dishwasher could be summed up in this little parody I came up with a couple minutes ago...

The Chief Defect of my Dishwasher's been
Never getting my Crockery clean.
At last, it's Motor broke and died,
Leaving Dirty Dishes inside.

Electricians of Nonexistent Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
"There is no cure for this disease.

"Your dishwasher will very soon go bust."
It's Renter stood about and cussed
Lamenting its Untimely Death,
When the Dishwasher, with its Latest Breath,

Cried, "Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
That Forks, Knives, Plates, Bowls, and Cups of Tea,
Are all the Dishwasher's Job requires..."
With that, the Wretched Appliance expires.

I guess what I love about poetry is that the writer has a license to do whatever one wishes to do. Killing is as easy as a flick of a switch (or the flick of a pen,  more appropriately), as is loving, hating, kicking, screaming and everything else under the sun that is considered taboo in some aspects by societal standards. The poem by Hilaire Belloc, titled Henry King, who Chewed bits of string and was cut off in dreadful agonies, was part of his Cautionary Tales for children, which detailed the dastardly life consequences certain children faced for supposedly not behaving well - offences such as not eating their greens, or playing with mud, or even being rewarded a balloon for good behavior. The consequences were harsh, like
being burnt to death, gored by a bull, or frightened into a panic attack. Note the fact that in the last poem, the exemplary Great Grandfather lost a leg three times in three different places.

At first, since I grew up reading these poems, the young me really believed that these stories were sermonizing the virtues of "good" behavior, and parents would be teaching their kids about this book. However, as I grew older and observed the morals more carefully ("literature breeds distress" and "little boys should not be given dangerous toys", and such), I realized that Belloc very eloquently parodied the value parents normally put on "good" and "proper" behavior, and how they often try to illogically discourage "bad" behavior, i.e. "if you eat a cherry pit, a cherry tree will grow on your head". Finally, after reading about Sarah Byng in the poem and the "moral" she learned - "literature breeds distress", I soon became convinced that,
 actually, morals breed distress. I mean, what's the point of threatening people into being "good" without their actually understanding why? It does work, no doubt, but entirely because of stupidity and fear. Never underestimate the power of both. In real life, it's the fear and startlingly sheep-like nature of humans that still keeps so many people buying into the "Obey thy parents/guardian/teacher/husband/pastor or God/Godzilla/the Flying Spaghetti Monster will strike you dead" rhetoric of religion, even today.

Also, the only poem Belloc wrote about a "good kid" - showed how by loving sums, speaking Latin, enjoying the greasiest sheep meat, and being a bona fide parent-pleaser, you too could marry the daughter of a rich man and live happily ever after. 

I now come to the realization that I've severely digressed. Yet another post went by that I haven't discussed anything to do with music in favor of quirky observations...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Girls like Tussah aren't afraid of Prokofiev

Hello everyone reading this!

Some of you probably noticed that I changed the name of this blog. Some of my main reasons for doing so include the fact that without the word 'Tussah' in the blog title, nobody can find this page. Also, I grew up listening to Peter and the Wolf, and as a child (and even now) I seemed to identify with the daring nature of the protagonist. Boys like Peter are not afraid of wolves, says Prokofiev. Well, girls like me are not afraid of Prokofiev.

'Tussah and the Wolf' shall detail my adventures as a musician - the good, the bad, and the absolutely shocking. It will be the ultimate irregular journal.

Till the next idea/event that excites me...

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Let's get weird.


So first of all, I'm extremely sorry for not posting more frequently. I'd been out auditioning for several conservatories for almost ten days, and when I came home, I had lost nearly five pounds. Extreme? I know. Before that, all my time was whirled away in rigorous practicing and preparation.

Anyways, the important thing is that I'm here now, and I'm going to share one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had in my life.

Yesterday, one of my friends, a piano student at UNLV, announced to everyone that he was going to perform works based on math - namely Pascal's triangle, the multiplication table, and Mersenne numbers. Since I'm very interested in such compositions constructed on mathematical ideas and theorems, I decided to go to the concert, and bring my former piano teacher, Roger Bushell, with me (who also used to teach my friend).

For the sake of clarity in my explanation, here's the program:

Tango (1984) - performed and composed by Tom Johnson, piano (b. 1939)

Lecture with Repetition (1975) - spoken and written by Tom Johnson

Music for Eighty-eight (1988) - composed by Tom Johnson, performed by my friend.
i. Mersenne Numbers
ii. Pascal's Triangle
iii. Multiplication Tables

Twenty for solo flute (1988) - composed by Greg Burr

Music for Burying Things (2012) - composed by Bryan Kostors
For bass clarinet, piano, electric guitar, percussion and double bass

Clarinet Trio (12, 3, 2) - composed by Tom Johnson

Unfortunately - scratch that - fortunately (I'll explain in a bit), we were about five minutes late to the concert due to traffic on the way, and missed the Tango, but were just in time to hear the "avant-garde" Lecture. During this, Mr. Johnson read out lines over and over, hoping to display the musical qualities in speech.

It was a very bold venture, and at first I was deeply intrigued. He began to read, "There is music to be heard when we speak, there is music to be heard when we speak, there is music...". I was actively trying to discern the musical message. The air was calm, and soon his words lapsed into some sort of mantra - not music, though. 

But then things started to go south. The audience, mostly comprised of UNLV music majors, was getting impatient. They started a mantra of their own to mock the 74-year-old composer, shouting out the word 'more' fervently after each strain of repetition, and 'enough' when the sentence had been repeated to satisfaction.

It went something like this: 

"Sometimes, the content of this lecture is lost in the repetition." Mr. Johnson started. 
"More." said a man in the audience. 
"Sometimes, the content of this lecture is lost in the repetition."
"Sometimes, the content of this lecture is lost in the repetition!"
"ENOUGH!" said another man in the audience. 

This continued for quite a while. I understood his intent, as I've always known that words were, in fact, notes, and many a time have tried to employ my perfect pitch to analyze the keys that people were speaking in. However, his little experiment, in my opinion, fell flat on its face - maybe due to the inunciations of his speech, the quality of his voice, or the frequent and uncalled-for pauses he kept taking that hammered the final nail in this bizarre coffin. I was able to recognize the notes he spoke, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not make out the 'music' in his repetitions. And as all musicians know, there is a stark difference between plain notes and music. 

Then things started to get strange as hell. Mr. Johnson started saying the sentence, "I'm aware of the rhythm of the repetition" in a slow and steady crescendo, all with the insensitive audience reciprocating with "mores" and "enoughs" in a similar fashion. After a certain number of repetitions, he began to shriek! It went somewhat like this:

"I think this repetition turns to music."
I think this repetition turns to music!"

What happened next was not the slightest bit short of surreal. There was an old composer on stage screaming like a madman, a snarky audience yelling "MORE!" and "ENOUGH!" at the top of their lungs, and Mr. Bushell's face had contorted to a priceless image of total bemusement. He then turned to me furiously and hissed, "You're the one who got me into this!" 

And there I was, not knowing what I got myself into. A little voice in my head replayed the chant of that guy from the show Workaholics, "Let's get weird! LET'S GET WEIRD!!". I could hardly contain my laughter, as couldn't the audience, and folded a program over my lips to conceal my derisive expressions. 

Finally, it was over, and none but smirks lingered in the air. 

The next piece was what I had been anticipating in the concert - also by the same composer - Music for Eighty-eight. My friend gave a brief introduction for the pieces he was going to play, and the motive behind them. 

The pieces did mathematically make sense, I've got to admit. Mersenne Numbers was harmonically the most interesting. Multiplication Tables did lack variety, but was a nice play on the hemiola - an illusion of two different time signatures, without a polyrhythm. There was a constant base: Eb Bb Bb, seemingly in triplets, and the right hand consistently played a descending chromatic scale, each in different groups - 4, 5, 6 up to 11 - while being synchronized with the left hand, and each sequence ended with the same note (Eb). Therefore each group was 3 x 3, 3 x 4, 3 x 5, etc., hence the multiplication. 

Sorry for going all music nerd on everyone, I really can't help it sometimes. If you really want to find out about the jargon in the past few sentences (or get mindfucked, if you're not a musician), type 'hemiola' into Wikipedia. 

After the eleventh strain of repetition of the hemiola, my friend paused, and suddenly said, "And so forth. You get the idea." in a fervent tone, completely betraying his understandable frustration and loss of patience. The audience warily clapped. 

If my memory serves me right, one of the three parts of Multiplication Tables is based on square numbers (y = x^2)). It started with the 81st key of the piano, then the 64th, 49th, and so on. This whole piece, though musically tedious and insipid, conveyed a very good sense of math translated into music. 

I don't remember much of Pascal's Triangle. It was similar to Multiplication Tables, but generated even more ennui.

At this point, I must impart a brief discourse on my views on math in music. I believe that math exists in all music, and that nothing is a pure accident. Even when music may seem to be composed on the premises of what 'sounds good', the result is always based on fundamental mathematical rules which govern us all. That being said, when music is actually based on math by the composer's intent, like Ligeti's etudes and his obsession with fractals and other aspects of calculus, the composer has an added responsibility to make the music compelling for an audience. After all, it is music, not a boring treatise, and therefore should be as exciting and edgy as music is in its raw form without predetermining. 

But not everyone can compose like Ligeti. 

The flute piece was okay. Quite unremarkable. Onward...

Music for Burying Things conveyed just the mood of its title. I was finally entranced. All the instruments came together perfectly. The depth of the bass clarinet and the finesse of the percussion - along with the beautiful G minor progressions made it wonderfully enrapturing. It sort of reminded me of the soundtrack to the indie black comedy The Last Word. The piece was darkly quirky, and quite disturbing, in a good way. Personally, I like being disturbed and disturbing people with music. I view it as my duty as a performer. 

What amazed me was it was composed this year, and this fact somewhat restored my faith in humanity. I've always believed that even though performance quality has gone up in recent years, composition quality has gone down. Kudos, Bryan - your piece changed my least for now. how do I begin about the last piece? I'll do my best to illustrate the sheer force of bizarro at the end of this freak show of a concert.

So Mr. Johnson walked up on stage with three clarinetists (also students at UNLV). He announced his motives behind his trio - the mathematical rhythms behind the pieces, yada yada - and that the USA premier of this work was last week in LA, and the UK premier was in two weeks in Leipzig (or was it Paris?).

He quickly added that the piece is twenty minutes long before hastening off to his seat. Seeing what came next, I think he thought it appropriate to warn the audience.

The clarinetists closed their eyes and gathered their thoughts, seemingly preparing for the arduous ordeal up ahead for them, and began to play. The piece was structured like this: the first strain was four intervals in tritones. I remember them as C-F#, D-Ab, B-F, C-F#. Then, based on the same notes, the rhythms got a little more complex - if 'complex' means the letter Z to a child who has only learned the alphabets up to D, that is. After each strain, there was a short pause of about 10-15 seconds. I think this is by far the most tedious work I've ever heard in my life. The rhythms were not interesting and the intervals were dissonant and harrowing to the ear. Mr. Bushell remarked under his breath, "This composer wouldn't make ten cents with this so-called music, and neither would the performers if this is what they perform all the time!"

I couldn't agree more. I found myself inadvertently looking at my iPad under my program to see the time. The piece started at 8:35, and was due to finish at 8:55. The poor clarinetists seemed to turn page after page of empty notes masquerading as music. Finally, after twenty-five minutes (NOT twenty minutes! LIAR! LIAR! PANTS ON FIRE!!!) , they withdrew their clarinets from their lips.

The applause that ensued was not of elation or approval, but rather of pure relief. 

This whole crazy experience reminded me of the funny and meaningful movie Untitled. What qualifies as art? There does need to be thought put into it, and certainly a great deal of acumen to execute what is in thought. Not everyone can be an artist. There are concrete reasons why some of us are geniuses. No one should abuse the meaning of the word, and pass lack of talent as avant-garde material.

Phew! That was a lot to write about. Gotta go back to practicing now. More later.