Waiting for Tosca

We’re off to see Opera North’s Tosca in a few weeks. Can’t wait, it’s been getting some great reviews.

Tosca, Grand Theatre, Leeds, review: Drama to hit you in the gut – chiming with the demands of Puccini’s music
Post-Weinstein, and following revelations of world-wide corruption in the Catholic church, recent history has played into the hands of any director who wants to give Puccini’s Tosca topicality. Edward Dick and his team have eagerly grabbed this opportunity: their production for Opera North is both viscerally shocking in its violence, and queasily recognisable in its portrayal of the deal which power likes to make for sex.

Tosca review, Opera North, Grand Theatre Leeds: a brutal, thumping success
The closest opera has yet come to the world-view of the action movie, Tosca hits hard, below the belt.There is no subtlety to mine here (though I toy with a fancy that Tosca might secretly be quite excited by Scarpia’s sexual offer) and no time to waste: from the violent opening explosion to the heroine’s final defiant death leap, Puccini has no higher aim than that of gripping an audience by its vitals.

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Tosca review – contemporary take on Puccini is compelling and creepy
Edward Dick’s provocative, if quirky new production of Tosca for Opera North relocates Puccini’s political thriller from Rome during the Napoleonic wars to an unnamed present-day country in which church and state collude as forces of reaction. Dick is acutely aware that the opera maps on to the concerns of our own times – the printed programme contains photographs of a Five Star Movement rally in Rome and Donald Trump standing, head bowed, in front of a wooden cross. The staging alludes, too, both to the emergence of the new far right and the abusive sexuality that has resulted in #MeToo.

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Tosca, Opera North review – exciting update, strong on sonic thrills
Puccini’s Tosca isn’t a subtle work, and this, Opera North’s fourth production since the company’s founding in 1978, is occasionally too loud and crude. But it’s undeniably powerful. Edward Dick’s 2017 Hansel and Gretel left me a little nonplussed, but this Tosca is miles better, a colourful update which manages to juggle plenty of schlock with sound artistic nous. He’s helped by conductor Antony Hermus, making his Opera North debut and securing some terrific, full-throated orchestral playing, much of it at the upper end of the dynamic scale.

In preparation, I’ve been listening to this Callas recording — it’s all pretty thunderous stuff!

Puccini – Tosca (Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi – recording of the Century : Victor De Sabata)

The Opera North version is directed by Edward Dick, the guy behind the amazing Hansel and Gretel we saw last year.

Hansel and Gretel review – screen-savvy kids summon a Blair Witch fairytale
Bold video projections evoke an online forest where two youngsters find danger, in Opera North’s imaginative Engelbert Humperdinck revival.

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Bossy Bernstein

What happens when two musical heavyweights clash.

Who’s the boss?
For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore.

The article from The American Scholar goes on to transcribe part of that speech, and here’s an audio recording of it and the subsequent performance.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Gould/Bernstein – Bernstein’s Speech included

Here’s Bernstein’s own take on it, and the press attention that followed:

The truth about a legend
So I said to Glenn backstage, “You know, I have to talk to the people. How would it be if I warned them that it was going to be very slow, and prepare them for it? Because if they don’t know, they really might leave. I’ll just tell them that there is a disagreement about the tempi between us, but that because of the sportsmanship element in music I would like to go along with your tempo and try it.” It wasn’t to be a disclaimer; I was very much interested in the results—particularly the audience reaction to it. I wrote down a couple of notes on the back of an envelope and showed them to Glenn: “Is this okay?” And he said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, what a great idea.”

So I went out, read these few notes, and said, “This is gonna be different, folks. And it’s going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.” Out he came, and indeed he played it exactly the way he had rehearsed it, and wonderfully too. The great miracle was that nobody left, because of course it had become such a thing to listen to. The house came down, although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.

The result in the papers, especially the New York Times, was that I had betrayed my colleague. Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn’s encouragement. They just assumed that I had sold him down the river by coming out first to disclaim his interpretation. It was, on the contrary, a way of educating the audience as part of Thursday night’s procedure. All this was not only misunderstood, but repeated and repeated and multiplied exponentially by every other newspaper that wrote about it.

And, for good measure, here’s another clip of Bernstein and Gould together, more harmoniously this time, perhaps.

Glenn Gould’s U.S. Television Debut: Bernstein Conducting Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor

Brainy music

Music can affect us in different ways, but here are two I hadn’t considered before.

First, an article about Brain.fm and how it’s using AI to create music (or is it just sound?) designed to help you focus.

The science behind the ‘beats to study to’ craze
According to Woods, good focus music has no vocals, no strong melodies, ‘dark’ spectrum, dense texture, minimal salient events, heavy spatialization, a steady pulse, sub-30-200Hz modulation and above 10-20Hz modulation.

This is compared to an example of a more traditional approach to music that can help you work — the “lofi hip hop radio” playlist from YouTuber ChilledCow, described as “the type of tune you’d put on at a backyard barbecue: mellow beats with an analog flair.” When discussing Brain.fm, its ‘composer’ admits that:

All of his parameters for good focus music are understandably clinical. “These acoustic features I’ve been talking about, they’re things about sound, not things about music,” he admitted. “The world that musicians live in has key signatures, time signatures, major and minor keys. I haven’t been talking about that at all, but what this ‘lo-fi’ [channel] shows is those things can be enormously important.”

I think I know which I prefer, but it’s an interesting project nonetheless.

And for a completely different take on how music affects the brain, take a look at the artwork of Melissa McCracken. She has synesthesia and paints what she sees when she listens to music.

The artist who paints music
Basically, my brain is cross-wired. I experience the “wrong” sensation to certain stimuli. Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space. But the most wonderful “brain malfunction” of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song.

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It’s all absolutely gorgeous, and the video Kottke links to really gets across her passion and talent.

The Artist Who Paints What She Hears

Looks who’s back

Or maybe isn’t.

Yet more mysterious Aphex Twin-related artwork has popped up
Aphex often emerges briefly only to disappear back into the acid-lashed shadows, a ginger mystery, leaving little behind except a string of deeply weird, often brilliant records. We think he might be about to drop another one. Possibly. Maybe.

Now that’s what I used to call music

I was 11 in 1983. I’m now 46. A milestone has been reached.

Now That’s What I Call Music! just turned 100
Phil Collins’ cover of the The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the first song on the very first Now That’s What I Call Music!—or “Now,” as it’s popularly known—released in the UK in 1983. Yesterday (July 20), the 100th UK volume of the series was released; its first song is Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s electronic dance hit “One Kiss.” Listen to both tracks and you’ll see that we’ve come a very long way, baby.

As ever, the It’s Nice That team has a great take on it.

Now That’s What I Call an oddly important document of British visual culture: Now releases its 100th CD
As objects, and as ideas, the Nows that litter charity shops and the glove compartments of seen-better-days people carriers up and down the country are primarily functional. End-of and mid-year money savers, they are cheap and cheerful. And they look it, too.

The series is an interesting record of the shifting musical tastes of our young people (including me, once upon a time), but it’s visually important too.

You’ll notice that after rather anodyne first and second editions, the team decided to inject a bit of personality into proceedings. Which, for Now’s three, four, and five they did with a pig. In sunglasses. This, for reasons that are probably best left kept in the matte black confines of a mid-80s record label HQ, was the big idea. This was how they were going to sell yet another chart compilation to the nation. With a pig in sunglasses.

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I’d forgotten all about that pig! Needless to say, it didn’t stick around, and before long the cover we all know and love appeared. And stayed.

Like the Little Chef logo or the Nike swoosh, the solid sameness of Now provides a moment of calm in an epoch marked by hysterical atomisation. You’ll probably never buy another Now compilation again — because why would you —but that isn’t the point. Like cockroaches at Armageddon, Now will always sit there on supermarket shelves.

I, for one, am glad of that. Buying and listening to music these days is getting far too complicated.

How spammers, superstars, and tech giants gamed music
On a website with more than 100 million active daily users, there are plenty of ways to game the system, be it for attention, or, if the streams pile up enough, profit. And the frauds cashing in on the latest hot single are hardly alone. A bevy of unknown artists have found ways to juice their streaming totals, whether it’s covering songs from artists who don’t allow their songs on Spotify, or uploading an album of silent tracks, each precisely long enough to generate a fraction of a cent for the artist.

Abstract expressionist music for your walls

I’ve always had a soft spot for it, but it could be said that listening to ambient music is like watching paint dry, so perhaps Brian Eno’s latest collaboration fits quite well.

Graham & Brown launches wallpaper collection with Brian Eno
British wallpaper manufacturer Graham & Brown enlisted one of the most iconic figures in music to lend his creative magic to a collection of wallpaper that recently launched in the US. Brian Eno, a ridiculously prolific founding member of Roxy Music and frequent collaborator of artists like David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, and more, has always dabbled in other mediums so it’s really no surprise he’s landed in the wallpaper arena.

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“I think of wallpaper as ambient painting – an area of interior design that changes the atmosphere in a room. I really responded to classic floral designs and also those with West African roots from Graham & Brown’s archive, resulting in a dynamic layering of pattern to create the collection – a kind of music to be played on walls.”

Let the violins sing

Research, which I don’t pretend to fully understand, has been undertaken on why the violins made by the Italian masters are so good.

Acoustic evolution of old Italian violins from Amati to Stradivari
The unique formant properties displayed by Stradivari violins may represent the acoustic correlate of their distinctive brilliance perceived by musicians. Our data demonstrate that the pioneering designs of Cremonese violins exhibit voice-like qualities in their acoustic output.

Thankfully, a few websites picked this story up and explained it for the rest of us.

Scientists find secret behind sweet sound of Stradivarius violins
The instruments achieve their sweetness and brilliance by mimicking aspects of the human voice, study says.

The world’s best violins sing like humans
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that not only do great violins sing like humans, those built by different makers may remind us of different types of human voices.

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“Although we did not perform any psychological experiments in this study, I speculate that the similarity between violins and voices can explain why violins are so popular,” Tai concludes. In other words, we may not yet understand quite how these instruments do what they do. But maybe we like them because when they do it, they sound like us.

It’s not the first time science has tried to understand what makes these instruments so special.

The brilliance of a Stradivari violin might rest within its wood
Why nobody has been able to replicate that sound remains one of the most enduring mysteries of instrument building. A new study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that answers may lie in the wood: Mineral treatments, followed by centuries of aging and transformation from playing, might give these instruments unique tonal qualities.

Violin-fiddling boffins learn that ‘f-holes’ are secret to Stradivarius’ superior sound
Although each violin maker inarguably possessed a good ear – in order to recognise and replicate the violins that sounded best – whether or not they recognised the particular design elements that contribute to a more powerful sound is still up for debate. In other words, the violinmakers knew what was a better instrument to replicate but they didn’t necessarily know that its slender holes were what made the sound it produced tonally pleasing.

Too many organ donors

Atlas Obscura takes us to Windham County, Vermont, to a local history museum with an unusual stock problem.

The Vermont town that has way too many organs
In its heyday, the Estey Organ Company factory was the beating, bleating heart of Brattleboro, Vermont. It produced more than half a million organs in total and, at its peak, employed more than 500 people. On a fateful day in 1960, however, the assembly lines shut down and workers departed. After nearly a century in operation, the organ factory had gone silent.

And then, like the most improbable boomerangs, the organs started coming back.

Keen to preserve some of the town’s heritage, people started donating their unwanted organs back to Brattleboro, to the town’s historical society. Soon they had enough to open a dedicated organ museum, based in the old factory, but still the organs kept coming.

“In a way, it’s my fault that we have all these organs,” says George. She was generous with the old factory space, which at first provided ample room. But after years of accepting any and all organ donations, many of the buildings began to fill up. It was a unique predicament for any local society. What do you do with hundreds of antique, mostly unplayable organs?

Organs are such strange instruments. You wouldn’t describe a violin as a machine, as such, but that term seems to fit some of these examples.

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They came in an astonishing range of shapes, sizes, and uses, from children’s toys, to living-room centerpieces, to the crown jewels of community churches and theaters. Some of the organs were designed to fold up into little suitcases and could be taken anywhere. The historical society has photos of chaplains playing portable Estey reed organs in World War II, and the society boasts that their organs have pumped out tunes on six of the world’s continents (poor Antarctica).

Weaponized classical music?

An interesting but depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.

Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.

Bach at the Burger King
The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

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It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”

So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.

Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.

Very different approaches to movie music

I mentioned the upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic earlier. Whilst his Broadway musical, West Side Story, was quickly turned into a film, I don’t really think of him as a movie composer.

Here are a couple of articles about composing music for the movies.

How the iconic music of 2001: A Space Odyssey came to be
When he was finally cutting the film, he started laying in this music that he’d been amassing during post and even during production. He would watch the rushes and listen to music. In fact, one of the key catalysts was, when the MGM [head] brass flew in from LA and from New York, Tony Frewin [Kubrick’s assistant on the film], who was 19 years old, the week before the MGM brass flew in, Kubrick said, “Tony, get petty cash. Get this much money and go buy all the classical music you can find downtown.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a reflection on how the composer hears the world
This sort of spontaneous fluidity is what has driven most of the composer’s work throughout his decades-long career. In the film, we see his restless creative energy at work, as he edits and adds to tracks while sitting on an exercise ball in his home studio. He improvises on a track playing in the background by running a violin bow across a hi-hat cymbal to unnerving effect. He listens to his environment with a playful curiosity, endlessly experimenting with whatever he can find