“Three Strikes and you’re OUT!”

An interesting blog in the NYT by David Lang (one of the founders of Bang on a Can) making an analogy to Baseball and Classical music.  I posted a response at the cello chat forums, but thought I’d include it here for those interested.

Response below:

A nice piece–and for the record, I’ve always loved David Lang’s work ever since I first started listening to Bang on a Can.  And one of the main reasons I decided an orchestral career wasn’t for me was primarily the lack of focus on new music, or music being composed today.

I think the analogy fails in many ways (or obfuscates issues–which is really what analogies are designed to do–heighten similarities but lessen the differences, eh?).  I think the biggest differences between sports and classical music deal with the end performance (and here, I think it might be helpful to point out that Baseball’s popularity has waned over the decades especially in light of the Basketball/Football).  But sorts teams are attempting to re-create past games–each game is a new one.  Same set of rules, for sure, but the script isn’t already set (nor are the players in most cases).  I think John Zorn wanted to highlight that aspect of a “game with rules” in his game piece compositions–which obviously include hefty amounts of impovisation (to specific rules) that is no longer a part of classical music training and performance. 

He does address it at the end of his piece, but having a baseball game that’s a re-creation of a past game isn’t functionally a whole lot different than scripting a new baseball game that needs to be played pitch-for-pitch (pun intended) exactly as the score (also, pun intended) dictates.  It’s a set of rules to improvise to, which classical musicians are some of the most ill-trained folks to be attempting.  While I would be VERY interested in seeing a full symphony orchestra try something like this, it would require a completly different kind of training for the musicians.

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Performance: IU Southeast Orchestra – Mahler Symphony No. 1 “Titan”

Gustav Mahler (July 1860 – 18 May 1911)

If you’re reading this it’s because I’ve set this to auto-post as I will be performing with the IU Southeast Orchestra.  We’re performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Majoras well as the short work known as “Blumine” which for a few years served as the second movement to the Symphony before the composer excised the movement from later editions.  We will be playing it as the second movement for this performance.

Also, members and former members of the Louisville Orchestra will be joining us though officially in the capacity as “members of Keep Louisville Symphonic” since the Louisville Orchestra threatened the Louisville Orchestra Musicians Association with a lawsuit for using the “Louisville Orchestra” name.

Rather than bother you with my bad prose, I’ll post the press release our conductor, Dr. Joanna Goldstein, used for the purposes of promoting this concert.

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“…he has no European blood in his veins to make sense of our European repertoire…”

Los Angeles Gagaku Group

The quote in the title is from a comment made by a poster to a recent article in Slate about the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s current search for a new conductor now that maestro James Levine will be leaving.  The full quote is:

A few years ago the Boston Globe wrote an article about a whispering campaign against Ozawa, which basically said “Ozawa can’t be a good composer [sic]; being Japanese, he has nor [sic] European blood in his veins to make sense of our European repertoire.[“] Maybe they should find some black female rising star and watch them tie themselves into knots. Seriously, I would look to the future and choose Gustavo Dudamel. If some members of the orchestra “erect barriers” retire them – immediately [my emphasis].

which I find a bit baffling.  At the same time I can also understand the sentiment since at this blog I write quite a bit about various countries and their respective indigenous art musics.  It’s so difficult for folks to separate out ethnic ancestry and cultural institutions as opposed to ethnic ancestry and the musical history of the indigenous arts.  Japan, of course, has a centuries long art music tradition (e.g. Gagaku, NōgakuJōruri).

I think that it can be difficult for folks to understand what relevance that, say, Japanese Court Music like Gagaku (, literally “elegant music”) can have for society in general.  But in a sense, that is increasingly the position Western Classical Music has in relation to society especially as newer music written in the style isn’t actively being promoted within the mainstream institutions.

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Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras

Cellists in Umm Kulthum's firqa (orchestra) photo ca 1965

This week’s installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will focus on the cello in Arabic Orchestras.

Stringed instruments have long been part of Middle Eastern art ensembles.  Whether the kamancheh, djoze, rebab, or eventually the Western violin, bowed strings have nearly always played an integral role in the sound of the ensembles from that region.  Once western instruments, especially the violin, were introduced many of the folk instruments began being replaced by the violin.

By the 20th century, and especially after the first Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932) the rest of the Western strings began to be incorporated into the traditional art music ensembles of the the Middle East (due to the influence of Muhammad Fathi) and eventually larger orchestras started to develop and composers from the region started writing music for these larger forces while also adapting some Western composition techniques and music ideas and fusing them with the indigenous art music traditions.

The difficulty with incorporating Western strings into the Arabic Orchestra has nothing to do with the instruments themselves, per se, but with the tunings and scales (maqamat) and the standardization of ornamentation for a whole section of strings rather than one string soloist in a smaller takht ensemble.

Arabic oudist, Saed Muhssin, lays out some of the fundamental differences in tuning at his blog post, The Arabic String Section.  The primary difference for the cello is the A would be tuned to a G which gives the four string tuning CGDG rather than CGDA.  While it is possible to play Arabic music with a Western tuning, which I generally do since I prefer not to retune my instrument much, as he notes

While it is possible to play the notes in the alternate tuning, the resonance of the instrument is different. Furthermore, from string players who’ve done the switch after trying to play in western tuning, the fingering of some maqams is a lot more cumbersome in western tuning, and Arabic tuning lends itself to playing Arabic music.

he is correct in that the Arabic tuning is far less cumbersome for a lot of the maqams.  Once I get any of my spare  cellos set up for playing I will likely leave one in Arabic tuning specifically for my performances of Arabic music.

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Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Chinese Cellos

Chinese gehu
Chinese géhú (革胡)

In China, there have been many attempts at creating variations on the cello (and bass) to fill out the string section of traditional Chinese Orchestras.  The èrhú (二胡), an ancient instrument that likely originated in Central Asia nearly a millenea ago, probably has the quintessential “Chinese sound” that Westerners imagine when they think of Chinese music though I’m sure a close tie would be the sound of the gǔzhēng (古箏).

The instrument in the photo to the left is a géhú (革胡).  As Brandon Voo states:

The Gehu comes in two sizes, the Da-Gehu (large) and the Diyin Gehu (bass). In a Chinese orchestra, they take the same roles as the cello and double bass in a Western symphony orchestra. The four strings of both sizes are tuned exactly like the cello and double bass and are attached to a machine head with gears.

The wikipedia article for the géhú states that it was “developed in the 20th century by the Chinese musician Yang Yusen (, 1926-1980)” which I’ll have to confirm once I do some research but given the time frame referenced by Brandon Voo in his article regarding the changes undergoing Chinese Orchestras during the 1950s, Yang Yusen’s dates would fit in fine.

Here’s what the géhú sounds like:

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