Technical styles that’ll be full of technology

Because Soho the Dog’s critic-at-large, Helena B., had last week off, I did, too (at least on the newsletter front). Here’s what you may have missed:

Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony live—and work—for the present (Washington Post, February 14, 2020)

At the Kennedy Center, pianists Lewis and Osborne work in miniature (Washington Post, February 19, 2020)

Noseda returns to the NSO podium and, just in time, finds the narrative (Washington Post, February 21, 2020)

The National Philharmonic presents and proposes music of black composers (Washington Post, February 24, 2020)

N.B.: the Baltimore review marks my first published correction in the Post. It was a good run while it lasted.

The Lewis/Osborne recital had me thinking about technology—specifically, the weird development of piano technology. The piano evolved pretty continuously from its early-18th-century origins: wood frames became iron frames, straight-stringing gave way to (mostly) cross-stringing, the key-hammer action went through a bunch of adjustments and improvements, pedals moved from knees to feet, &c., &c. And then, sometime toward the end of the 1800s, everybody decided that the piano had reached more or less its final form. Which is not to say that the piano is a perfect instrument; a large part of piano training, in fact, is mastering techniques for overcoming its quirks. Which maybe was been part of the point. This, the entire late-Romantic piano-playing culture seemed to say, this is the appropriate level of difficulty that every future pianist should be required to overcome. Since then, it’s training and performance that has been the locus of development. Piano writing and piano playing in the 21st century is far beyond what it was 150 years ago! But I wonder how much more innovation can be squeezed out of the piano on the technique end.

One of the things I’ve been fascinated by in 21st-century pop music is the wholesale and unapologetic embrace of technological development. If a sound or a passage is unsuitable, or difficult, or impossible for a standard instrument, the sound or the passage is realized through technological augmentation or substitute, with nobody—performers, producers, listeners—blinking an eye. Here’s a theory: when people talk about musical traditions or styles having or not having “relevance,” maybe a lot of the time what they really mean is that the favored technology of a musical tradition or style is obsolete. “Relevance” isn’t cultural, but an expression of a style’s penchant for embracing (or, if you like, fetishizing) a technological cutting edge. That applies to distribution, too—when I hear someone citing a supposed golden age of classical-music currency and cultural status in the mid-20th-century, I wonder how much of that is simply acknowledging the heyday of the LP as a shiny new format.

(A few years ago now, I started to unpack some ideas related to this for NewMusicBox. Then life got in the way! I should pick up that thread again someday.)

***

I spent part of today at the Library of Congress, doing some due diligence in the archives of my old teacher, Lukas Foss, for an imminent column. There wasn’t much related to the column, but I did find a couple of birthday cards. There was this one, a 40th-birthday greeting to Foss from Witold Lutosławski:

(The footnote for the non-existent Ondes Martenot part: “The author does not love this instrument”.)

And then there was a draft for a card from Foss himself to (I’m guessing) Michael Tilson Thomas:

Empires rise and fall, but we’ll always have composers goofing off.

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