One Night’s Chord | VAN

My latest piece for VAN magazine dives deep on the strange chord at the centre of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht:

At the heart of Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht stands a chord. In the midst of the work, an ambiguous, complex, chromatic tone poem, the chord stands out as uniquely ambiguous, complex, and chromatic. The work was controversial when it was written, its lush, shifting harmony having been too much for many early listeners, and that one chord was singled out as an eccentricity too far.

The reaction to Verklärte Nacht was acidic. Even Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and nominal teacher, chastised the work for its dense harmony and its clear debt to Wagner. He told the composer, “it sounds as though you have taken a still-wet version of the Tristan score and smeared it.” When Schoenberg submitted it to the Vienna Music Society for performance, they rejected it on the basis of its unprecedented extension of traditional harmony, and singled out that pivotal chord as “uncategorizable.” Schoenberg later quipped on their wobbly logic that it couldn’t be performed “since one cannot perform that which does not exist.” And, when it finally received its 1902 premiere, three years after its completion, the audience reportedly met it with hisses and gasps.

But let’s set aside theoretical lunacy and look at the chord itself. It’s a beauty.

Like Doing a Duet With a Ghost

Another terrific podcast from Q2 Music in New York, who make my favourite show, Meet the Composer. LPR Live has a simple premise: performances of contemporary works, along with interviews with the performers and (where possible) composers.

This week, in episode 4, Terry Riley’s exposed, precise Keyboard Study 1, one note at a time throughout, and Samuel Adams’ Shade Studies, almost an exact opposite, warm and rich with electronic resonance. They’re both performed by Sarah Cahill.

Music for a New World

Me, writing in VAN magazine:

So if streaming is the future of music, and a musician-led streaming service is doomed to failure, then what’s the solution? Much as with technology companies, there are two ways for a musician to make a living on the Internet: musicians with mass-market appeal, who must appear on streaming services, as it’s in their interests to be easily accessible to as many listeners as possible; and musicians with a small, passionate audience who, to make a living, will have to have dedicated listeners who are prepared to pay for their music. Many artists complain that they are underpaid by Spotify, but Spotify already pays 70 percent of its revenue to musicians—well, to their labels at least—so a significant increase is impractical.

Professional musicians who know that their music has limited appeal should think very carefully about whether their music belongs on a streaming service at all. Small record labels should do the same. Few people are in music, least of all classical music, for wealth or power, but giving music away for next to nothing is a surefire way to never make a living from it. Instead, musicians can continue doing what they’ve been doing in one form or another for centuries: selling their music.

Themes may be familiar to regular readers of this blog—digital economics, streaming and piracy, and the need for musicians to know their audience. VAN is a very interesting new publication, and worth reading. I’ve bought a subscription. This week, I shall be rocking out to their JACK Quartet playlist.

Looking at the Life Cycle of U.S. Classical Music Ensembles

Good preliminary analysis from Jon Silpayamanant on Mae Mai. The nut:

So, the question of whether all these new orchestras, opera companies, smaller ensembles, concert bands, choral groups are making money is besides the point. At nearly every point of nearly every organization, the revenue generated was small until the organization reaches maturity. And in most cases, this took somewhere between 50 to 100 years. Let’s ask the question in a few decades when we’ll actually have a comparable timeframe.

This article does a good job of shifting perspective: the stable, full-time, for-profit classical ensemble is a relatively new beast, and that helps explain the heavy focus on works by big-name dead composers. But a hundred years ago, when many of these performing groups were young, their repertoire was far more contemporary (at least if the New York Met is anything to go by). It makes you wonder if, a hundred years from now, ensembles like Bang on a Can and ICE will be focussed on works from our time or theirs.

In other words, I wonder if the ageing of the repertoire part of the life cycle of music ensembles too.