cultural perception

The crucial aspect of the cultural context in music making is created through reception. Listeners play vital roles in establishing music reception; often as professional critics, major patrons, and public audiences including the general consumers. Music reception affects the subsequent production of music; especially regarding the choreography of opera set and the style of performance. One of the problems in Tavener reception is caused by the ways in which several composers are grouped and labelled as holy minimalists for the sake of convenience of music critics.
Cross-cultural perception begins from identifying the differences of perspectives on culture between West and East. Cultural environment influence perception and the process of observation and decision. For instance, the Western cultures such as Europeans signify for privacy and autonomy, whereas the Eastern cultures such as Chinese concern for interdependence and inclusion. Yun’s music bridging the two cultures means the study of its reception, therefore, ought to be approached with an understanding of both cultural perspectives.
Aside from the fact developing musical modernism into the fields of their partialities; Orthodoxy for Tavener, and orientalism for Yun, what could be considered as common grounds between the two composers? Both were criticised being loyalists; while Tavener’s royal connections and commercial gains through the Song for Athene are common knowledge, Yun’s music treated as ‘controversial’ because of prejudice towards him being loyal to the communist part in the north is a relatively lesser known fact outside the Korean Peninsula. Returning to how cultural situation affects perception, the point of how individuals raised and/or lived in diverse cultures to identify the world differently (Segall, Campbell, & Herskovits, 1966) is comprehensible to me. Although the nature of study in humanity is purely subjective, it appears that collecting evidence-based history and remaining objective perspectives on rather bizarre narratives around the composers as well as the relevant account of reception are crucial.

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still on lifting the veil

Some additional remarks on performance analysis: Cook (1999) defines musical performance involving negotiations between the demands of physical gesture and sound (‘playing’) and those of notation and its associated verbal traditions (‘writing’). Heile’s (2006) claim on opera being an ideal genre for performance analysis because of illustration of music as an embodied art involving human action appears in the same line of Cook’s view.
Musical expression in cello playing is created through the occurrence of compromise between bow speed (and length) and left-hand handling including vibrato. Expressive devices that can be detected through acoustic analysis of recorded music are dynamics, tempo, vibrato, glissamdo. Limitations between actual performances and acoustic text indicate the ways in which acoustic analysis as abstract as notated text. Acoustic analysis becomes indeed a useful tool for performance analysis, if or when interpretative inputs by researcher support it.
With Tavener’s musical insights are lurking around serialism, another welcoming point is Grant’s (2008) perspective on performers and listeners as active participants in the creation of serialist works. Unsure whether it would be more straight forward to analyse renditions by Yo-Yo Ma, (whose own views of The Protecting Veil is unknown) or Isserlis (how he views The Protecting Veil as a combination of spiritualism and romanticism, but certainly not a minimalism as references). Nonetheless, I am sure both would provide an equally stimulating scholarly journey!

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analysing performance as lifting the veil

One of the Sir John Tavener’s biographers Piers Dudgeon used the title of biography as lifting the veil, which means uncovering certain stuff previously secretive. Could performance analysis lift the veil of The Protecting Veil?

When the cultural analysis of performance is considered, there are several things to consider: firstly, whether cultural aspects could be quantifiable, secondly, whether issues in performance could be related to culture, and thirdly, whether a freely interpretative approach could be as effective as using statistics. So what happens in the case of The Protecting Veil?

Although the promotion by BBC on its commission for the 1989 Proms indeed would have helped to gain the public awareness of the piece, the work’s enormous popularity with the public is indicated by the sales figures of recordings including downloading rates. In other words, cultural aspects in the question are quantifiable, which fits in for the purpose.

A superb display of technical and interpretative details of the piece has attracted the cellists of contemporary to Steven Isserlis, including Yo-Yo Ma. The two performances played significant roles in cello performance history: if premiere was made a point of gaining popularity, Ma’s recording secured its position of establishing the ‘standard’ cello repertoires of the contemporary concert culture.
One of the significant issues in the performance of The Protecting Veil is the question of how it expresses holy minimalism or goes beyond the holy minimalism. While it is meaningless to discuss whether my preference goes to either cellists’ rendition, several interpretative details between Isserlis and Ma appear interesting from the opening of the piece.

Isserlis’ claim on how he perceives Tavener as a non-minimalist regardless to the spirituality, and The Protecting Veil as a deeply romantic work; is indicated in his fast tempo yet passionate phrasing. Judging from how his phrasings are static within expressive intensity, it can be presumed that Ma must have taken critics’ marketing points of naming Tavener as holy minimalists together with Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki much more seriously. The two contrasting yet spectacularly stimulating renditions suggest more interesting discoveries to come.

Statistics play a helpful role in guiding how different and similar performances are. However, not only a freely interpretative approach could be as effective as using statistics, especially referring to the score with analytical insights, but also sticking-up with statistics could be a dubious thing for a musicologist to act on, after all, particularly in the age of risky future(?) of p -value.

One might question the possibility of perceiving subjective terms of interpretations such as spiritual minimalism or intense romanticism through objective measurement. Indeed, digital measurement merely provides readings of tempo, timing fluctuation rate, peak dynamic within the selected excerpt, dynamic range and so on. It is down to researcher to decide how objective measurement could be interpreted subjectively. By providing interpretative meanings to digital readings, performance analysis plays a crucial role in revealing what is behind the interpretative insights of The Protecting Veil.

N.B. As you would have noticed by now, my views on statistics are pretty much open-minded, so let me know how scientific community decides on the p-value!

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Lifting the [protecting] veil

Cultural issues concerning musical modernism make the holy minimalism problematic yet motivating at the same time. This posting considers what are those challenging yet stimulating cultural issues in holy minimalism, and how cultural analysis could lift the [protecting] veil.

The two cultural concerns regarding holy minimalism somewhat intertwined to one another. Firstly, holy minimalism is criticised because of its tendency of neglecting the techniques and systems. Secondly, another nit-picking point is how spiritual minimalism retains commercial advantages though its connections to the ‘low’ popular music.
After all, a combination of tuneful melodies and jazzy rhythms over and over naturally appeals to ear. But was Tavener overlooking the sound of musical modernism? According to Isserlis, Tavener was not a minimalist; The Protecting Veil is a deeply romantic work, even if its proportions allow for many repetitions. The form is uncomplicated but satisfying; the whole work written in sections starting with each note of a descending F major scale.

Tavener not only experimented with modernist techniques serialism in his earlier work, The Whale, but also his dedication towards the Orthodox apparently instigated from the intellectual approach of following the Stravinskian footage. Even after converted to the Orthodoxy, his position towards the serialism and system remained unaffected (Keeble 1999). Having said that these points should be considered through analytical insights on the score rather than defending him using his own words!

Indeed, from the release of The Whale in 1970 on the Beatles’ Apple label, the nomination of The Protecting Veil for a Mercury in 1992, and the entrance of Song for Athene at that moment in 1997, Tavener obtained quite bits of commercial advantages. With how classical music struggle to obtaining a wider range of audiences for decades, reaching to the normally unattainable audiences in classical music world should be considered as a positive aspect.

One way of investigating cultural issue concerning the appeal of holy minimalism to the capitalism is through performance analysis. Hopefully, this idea could answer how performance analysis can be cultural. Performance analysis began from the very fact that no two renditions of a musical work can be identical. An empirical analysis of musical performance can indeed reveal stylistic characters of musical expressions, such as tempo, rubato, dynamics, vibrato, and more. Once the veil is lifted about the Isserlis’ 1989 rendition, other renditions could be considered in relation to di/similarity to the 1989 rendition. Correlation rates could be analysed on several elements of performance in relation to sales and download rates.

Could cultural analysis solve the intertwined two cultural concerns regarding holy minimalism? I hope so.




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Blurred lines of holy minimalism

Holy minimalism might be the word that describes Tavener’s music most precisely, but his musical insights certainly is not “reducible to one-dimensional labels such as ‘holy minimalism’”. One might consider the lack of complexities in the minimalism by Tavener “felt like a letdown, a yawn after a coughing fit. It didn’t flatter the intellect.” Indeed, I see the point that minimalist music is not favourable to some: there is even a scientific evidence that woman at their most fertile is more attracted to men who compose complex music.

Minimalism is characterised with the belligerently loud line (rather than tuneful melody) and industrial machinery sound like regular beat over and over. With its tendency on largely decorative pattern-making, minimalism appeal to the eye rather than ear particularly in its early days. Unlike conventional minimalism, melodies; simple heirmologic, complex sticheraric, and a number of set model, with improvisational possibilities play a central role in Tavener’s holy minimalism together with somewhat Jazzy rhythms.

Tavener’s music, however, reached to people who usually do not listen to classical music. There must be something special about holy minimalism. What brings out this cultural issue? Has holy minimalism acted upon bridging a gap between avant-garde and popular culture, or what? This is the topic for another day’s blog posting.

Tavener’s works written throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s illustrate his responses to the sounds of musical modernism including Stravinskian serialism. Besides his stylistic insights into the Orthodox began from following the Stravinskian footage. This is an interesting point because Stravinsky never discussed issues of faith openly, yet his music inspired Tavener into holy minimalism in the 1970s. Tavener’s music, however, neither purely represent Orthodox, like most religious music nor merely concern noting but structure and technique, as musical modernism. Furthermore, it is notable how Tavener talks about his compositions; having already been converted to the Orthodoxy, he admitted that “serialism and system were still knocking about” (Keeble 1999) within his musical language.

Tavener’s music is claimed to be rooted in his psychology. Although his faith towards the Orthodox was sincere, his free spirit; a so-called artistic type of personality, made his music speak out.

Blurred lines of holy minimalism derive from avant-garde technique combined with his artistic personality with the flavour of Orthodox. Perhaps, the most suitable way to enjoy Tavener’s holy minimalism is to perceive it with an open mind, bearing in mind “art is an expression not of the individual, but of the transcendental” (Dudgeon 2003), as he claimed.

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Cello as a metaphor

Composers take personal bonds with their instruments. There aren’t many cellist/composers around over the history. What roles did cellists play over the history? The Classical era’s cellist/composer Luigi Boccherini retained courtly and galante style, but the creative activities by cellist/composers in the Romantic era; Duport brothers, David Popper, Alfredo Piatti, were mostly remained at Etude and encore writings. The Modern era was indebted to Mstislav Rostropovich’s friendship with the twentieth-century composers such as Segei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten. Indeed, not to forget about British contribution of the modern era would be correspondences between Steven Isserlis and John Tavener.

Little known in the UK until this date, the Korean-born German composer Isang Yun also was a cellist, who had significant personal bonds with his instrument, the cello. He used the cello as a metaphor of expressing his struggled emotions.

The use of cello as a metaphor could be related to how the range of cello (also have a look at my earlier posting that explains the Korean traditional instruments and their equivalent Western counterparts) is similar to masculine voice. Besides, it would be also related to cello’s accesibility to the Haupttöne which uses ornamental figures such as glissando, vibrato and pizzicato. He appeared to make compositional notes of his frustrated emotions through the cello during the crucial creative timescale. It is interesting to notice how his political emotions are evolved.

Table 1. Isang Yun’s metaphor


The Table 1 indicates how metaphors evolve in his creative period. Metaphors change from celebrating the South Korean Presidential visit in 1964, expressing the fearful memory of 1967-9  in 1970, and in 1975/6, to indicating his frustrations over his homeland’s (South Korea) continuous cold shoulder towards his hopes for a visit in 1992, despite the change in regime.

Isn’t it extremely interesting how cello as a metaphor indicate his politically active expressions were formed through external aspects? I find it would be stimulating to find out how his structural expressions were evolved in his pieces written for cello through cultural analysis. Indeed, it would be possible to discover the impact of Haupttöne in the development of the European avant-garde from this selection. Next posting will be on what kinds of  analytical and critical methods would be appropriate for investigating Isang Yun’s musical insights.

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playability matters 

Surely unique compositions should be a joy to explore to performers, but why are so many compositions in the modern era at the risky fate of being neglected? In times like this, renditions by musicians who encountered and/or collaborated with the composer are not only considered mere valuable but also are reflected as performance historiography.

Isang Yun’s case makes no exception. Several members of the Scharoun Ensemble in Berlin and the Isang Yun Ensemble in Pyongyang worked alongside the composer; they would have learned the unique musical language of composer directly.

Founded in 1983 by members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Scharoun Ensemble’s principal artistic focus is bridging the gap between tradition and the modern. Owing to a lively artistic exchange between the composer and members of the ensemble until his passing in 1995, spiritual qualities of his music are conveyed to executions by the group.

A state funded ensemble, the Isang Yun Ensemble of Pyongyang was established in 1990, whose repertoires range from Bach to Yun. The Orchestra received training under the supervision of the composer. As with most musicians from the communist bloc, despite somewhat lack of philosophical quality, their display of technical skills is sensational.
One of the complications in promoting Yun’s music relates to the playability such as demanding performers with the tremendous skill to invest in many hours of extra working. Performers of avant-garde music often require information about the executions of ‘how to’. Yun’s music is particularly complicated in terms of handling of ornaments arising from the Haupttöne, and simultaneously sounding interactions between players creating several acoustic layers. It is important how performers balance between articulating extreme and subtle expressions. The understanding of hierarchy in music is vital, such as identifying main and sub melody and articulating details between delicate and intense tone. One of the crucial interpretative aspects of Isang Yun’s music is structuring the sound while observing the neutral acoustic layer whether acoustic layers are of active or passive in nature.

Studying the renditions by the two groups could make a useful guideline towards Yun’s
musical insights.

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