Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Grey Papon

Some bad people manage to hide their past and resurface as important figures someplace else where people haven’t bothered to check their history. A convicted felon may reappear as a respected violin dealer (there have been several), a musician moves to a new city and boasts about his/her former employment, without mentioning that he/she in fact had to leave. In business and politics, some people seem to be able to commit terrible deeds, and after a disgraceful exit, they pop up in charge of another leadership position, either with the government or private sector.

Last week brought news of the death of one successful and powerful con man, Maurice Papon. He had held a senior position in the Vichy regime, arresting and sending 1,560 Jews to Darcy interment camp, near Paris. From there these victims were transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and thus to death. After the war Papon managed to hide his past so well that French presidents, including Charles de Gaulle and Valery Giscard D’Estaing, named him into important positions, including the police chief of Paris and the budget minister. He was awarded the Order of Commander of the Legion of Honor medal by de Gaulle, and was even in charge of the company that built the supersonic Corcorde. It wasn’t until 1980s when evidence about his Nazi collaboration past came to light. Finally in 1997 he was convicted for his war crimes after a six-month trial, the longest in France’s history, and sentenced to ten years in prison. However, he was released on medical grounds in 2002, having served only three years. This angered many who felt that he shouldn’t have been freed. The head of the Union of Jewish students said that “Papon could die quietly - that was not the case for all those he sent to their deaths”

Papon’s defense argument throughout his trial was that he was only following orders, the same excuse we have heard over and over again. Adolf Eichmann was also proud of this and showed no remorse for what he had done. Even when it became obvious that Germany was rapidly losing the war and Heinrich Himmler ordered to stop the ‘Final Solution’ of exterminating the Jewish population of Europe and to destroy all the documents relating to this, Eichmann did not obey and continued his deadly work in Hungary. With luck and help, from among others some members of the Roman Catholic Church, he was able to avoid capture and eventually immigrate to Argentina. Israeli agents kidnapped him there in 1960 and brought him back to Israel. The trial in Jerusalem was broadcast live and the accused was found guilty on all counts and hanged in 1962, the only time Israel has used the death penalty in a civil case.

This excuse to kill and destroy due to orders given by superiors happens all the time. Some people end up in law enforcement or the military field because of their burning desire to wear a gun and use it. Often the question for such people is which side of the law they should be on. Crime usually pays far better, but there is always the risk of getting caught. Working on the ‘good’ side means less money but being able to legally take aim at a human target under the right circumstances. There are policemen and soldiers who unfortunately don’t think twice before shooting innocent and unarmed people. This is time of war, or war on terror, and human lives are not particularly valuable. But destroying lives can also happen in different ways: a foreman or a middle ranking executive can fire people, or stop hiring them in case of a temporary setup, knowing in many cases that they are endangering a person’s ability to earn a living. Yet these people with this power seem to have no conscience, and they seldom question if executing the orders of their own superiors is the right thing to do. What goes on in a soldier’s head, or a policeman’s, when they empty their gun on a woman, child, old man or just an unarmed civilian posing no threat to them or anyone else? Is that going to haunt him later in life, or is he a true sociopath with no conscience? What about a modern-day ‘Ronald Eichmann’ in the civilian sector, knowing that he has done something terribly wrong? Is he also without a conscience or will he wake up one night feeling pain and remorse for what he did?

We all remember the commercials for
Grey Poupon. What does that have to do with the also grey 96-year-old Monsieur Papon or a Nazi official? Well, one was about mustard and the other, among other horrors, mustard gas, effects of which they experimented on their helpless victims. The subject brings me to the fact that I know people, especially in the music field who, in spite of the image portrayed in the media, simply can’t cut the mustard.

Monday, February 12, 2007

More on Pitch and Intonation

Some people are born with a natural sense of musical intonation, a few with perfect or absolute pitch, and others with an ear that even without training can tell if music they hear is in tune. For most, this is a skill that can be developed, either through careful listening while practicing on an instrument, or with the help of a dedicated teacher. Then there are those who are simply tone deaf. Strangely, people in all these categories sometimes end up in the field of music.

Having perfect pitch is both a blessing and a curse. It works as a parlor trick to amaze people by having someone press different keys on the piano and instantly being able to tell what note it is, or hearing a foghorn of a ship or ferry and say that it is a “C”. I’ve found it a curse when I’ve had to play with an organ tuned to A=435, or to listen to ‘authentic’ performances a quarter tone flat, as I hear notes but they make no sense. It is similar to hearing a language that sounds familiar but none of the words are understandable. For a Finn, listening to Hungarian is like that; yet to an outsider the languages may sound quite similar, both being members of the same linguistic family. Luckily, as enough people with perfect pitch have had problems with the ‘baroque’ tuning, the standard seems to have come down to A=415, a semitone flat and fully acceptable to us, even if seemingly transposed down a half step.

A pianist needs not to worry about intonation, and even those who have an excellent sense of intervals and pitch in general, get used to the fully tempered scale where everything is a little out of tune. Often a violinist, who also plays the piano, wants to play music as he hears it on the keyboard, and sounds strangely out of tune to another string player. The ear is adaptable: what is a ‘natural’ scale in Western music is not so for many other cultures and their instruments. Unless introduced to our music early on, our system of whole and semitones might seem very foreign to them. Those of us studying world music are well aware of this, evident for example on the different tuning systems of the gamelan.

The ear is also faulty: when we hear a perfect octave, fifth or fourth, they actually are not so. Before the invention of electronic devices that showed the sound wave frequency, piano tuning was an art form. Everyone in that profession knew the fact that if you started on a note in the middle and tuned the piano in perfect octaves up and down, the top and the bottom were far apart, although mathematically they should have matched. Every cellist and violist is aware that they need to tune their lowest string, a “C”, a little bit higher, especially if the music calls for a long note on that open string. Only three perfects fifths are needed for this. The phenomenon probably happens because nature avoids all types of perfect harmonies, as every scientist knows. An immaculate sounding octave is slightly more that 1:2, and none of the ‘perfect’ intervals are just that.

Just like a string’s natural harmonics, brass instruments work on the overtone system, and a good musician realizes when he has to compensate to match other instruments in an ensemble. Even on the violin (or any other string instrument without frets), after teaching a student to play faultlessly in tune, when it comes to playing chords, all the previous rules have to be tossed into a waste basket. A major sixth that sounds ever so sweet appears out of tune when the notes are played separately: the top note is a bit flat. In a string quartet players need to adjust constantly, especially those in charge of the inner voices, to achieve perfect harmonies. This can take years to achieve; then all that goes out the window when playing together with a wind or brass instrument. A clarinet’s ‘perfect’ intonation doesn’t match that of strings, and it is evident when playing a quintet for that combination, such as the masterpiece by Brahms. In a symphony orchestra perfect intonation in the strings is not all that important: sixteen violinists interpreting the same note slightly differently usually create a ‘rich’ sound. No wonder orchestra strings players’ sense of pitch suffers over time.

What happens to all the people without an ear who end up in music? If spoon fed from early age, they may learn to play the violin by simply remembering where to place their fingers. It is common to find singers who are in the business simply because of their capable vocal cords, yet are incapable of reading music or hearing intervals, not to mention counting. Many accompanists have become ‘vocal coaches’ even if they can’t sing themselves. They just hammer out songs and opera arias repeatedly on the piano, and the singer learns her/his repertoire by imitation. A pianist can be tone deaf as long as he has some sense of rhythm. Some ability to read music helps. But being able to type doesn’t make for a great writer! Strangely, some ‘intonation challenged’ people even end up on the podium: one cannot beat time out of tune. These limitations become evident when a conductor tries to fix a blatantly dissonant chord in the brass, and tells an individual to raise his pitch when it should be lowered and vice versa. Often these musicians are able to fix the problem themselves, just by listening to each other more carefully, and the satisfied conductor happily takes the credit for it. But then, blessed are the ignorant.

“Intonation” © Jurgen Gorg

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Of Nostalgia and Purity

Growing up I tried to get my hands on every recording by notable violinists ever made. There were very few reissues of old recordings, but my French trained teacher Arno Granroth had an amazing collection of old 78s which I then transferred to tape. In the process I even learned how to eliminate much of the hiss and other surface noise of those discs, many of which were quite worn out from decades of listening. Perhaps the most amazing recording was the one young Jacques Thibaud made of two then-popular pieces, d’Ambrosio’s 'Canzonetta' and Gabriel-Marie’s 'La Cinquantaine'. This was made before the vacuum tube and amplification were available, and the violinist stood inches from the microphone, accompanied by a brass band, the only combination loud enough to be picked up by the same mike.

Since he was still playing in spite of his advanced age, I often heard Mischa Elman’s recordings on the radio, and naturally bought anything of his available at my favorite record store in Helsinki, Westerlund. As he played somewhat slower than most ‘hot’ names of that time, Elman’s playing was considered old-fashioned by many. In the Tchaikovsky violin concerto first movement he suddenly takes a much slower tempo, exactly in half speed, in a passage where everyone needs to slow down somewhat. This hardly can be because he wasn’t able to play it faster, but probably because the composer had wanted that. Elman was the oldest of Auer’s students and likely the first one to play the piece. What impressed me the most in his artistry was the impeccable intonation and sense of style, not to mention the big tone that was evident even on recordings. He was still performing in the early 1960s and it is said that even then no other living violinist could produce such a powerful, focused sound on the G-string.

Luckily by now most of the old recordings have been reissued on compact disks. One can actually witness the development of violin playing from Sarasate and Ysaÿe to modern violinists. Listening to historical recordings should be made mandatory for anyone taking the violin seriously, just like knowing art history and examining paintings by master painters is essential to an art student, even if he or she ends up filling the canvas with squares and circles, or cow dung like in the famous exhibit in New York some years ago. Great many releases feature Elman, from concertos to Jewish pieces and Fritz Kreisler’s little jewels. Of the latter, it is interesting how Elman treats 'Preludium and Allegro' and 'Sicilienne and Rigaudon' as if they were late baroque pieces by Pugnani and Francoeur. After the violinist learned these miniature masterpieces, it would take a couple decades before Kreisler would admit that they were actually his own creations.

Earlier this morning I gave a student the Kreisler arrangement of Dvořák’s 'Slavonic Dance' in e minor to learn. Of this piece, Elman’s recording has always been my favorite. It is quite slow, but immaculate in style and the intonation in the difficult double stops is simply breathtaking. We call it intonation, but in my native Finnish the term is musical cleanliness or purity, a far better description. This brings me to another topic: How is it possible that master fiddlers of the past with gut strings, or even gut core strings, such as Pirastro Eudoxa or Kaplan Golden Spiral, were able to play so well in tune? These strings would always drop in pitch and the soloist would turn his back to the audience during every tutti to tune them back up again. I particularly remember Zino Francescatti playing the Sibelius concerto and at the end of the slow movement the high natural harmonic shocked every listener for being a half step flat, yet everything else, double stops included, had been absolutely faultless. Before the introduction of Dominants and other synthetic core strings that keep the pitch stable, a violinist had to constantly adjust to the pitch discrepancies. A few people, namely soloists from the Soviet Union, used all-steel strings, but that was an exception.

In this country, on the East Coast, a terrible habit was formed some time in the middle of last century. A famous teacher, who wasn’t playing any more, decided that the students, who were playing solos with orchestra, would have to tune sharp to the orchestra’s pitch. That way they would either sound somewhat sharp (which many ‘knowledgeable’ critics praise for being in tune), or if they happen to play a bit flat, it would sound just right. This practice stuck, and today it is hard to find a violinist who tunes correctly and yet plays with excellent intonation. To listeners and orchestra musicians this sends a message that one shouldn’t care about the agreed pitch, especially after they read rave reviews of the performance. Naturally the string players, especially the first violins who can hear the soloist well, intuitively start adjusting their own pitch to match the star, yet most of the orchestra continues in the agreed-upon one. Even young students are encouraged by their fame-seeking teachers to tune sharp, in addition to doing the ‘right moves’ in front of an audience. Gone are the days when the soloist would stand there proudly and let his or her playing do the dancing. Instead a young teenager tunes his/her violin to 445 or above, yet manages to play flat, and tries to do choreographed dance even in a slow, deep and noble piece. Such teaching preferences will simply destroy a young ear and make music with its phrasing, tone and other truly important factors secondary to a cheap vaudeville act.

Friday, February 02, 2007


I always look forward to the Science section in every Tuesday’s NY Times. This past week was no exception, as I learned about the Japanese grass snake and its peculiar eating habits. It turns out that Rhabdophis tigrinus occasionally dines on poisonous toads in order to fill its nuchal glands with the poison from its meal and thus make itself an unappetizing target for prey. The toxins stay in the organs for about six months, then it is time for a new poisonous snack. Interestingly, on one island there are no such toads to consume and the poor snakes are defenseless, quickly slithering for cover when danger approaches.

So, even in nature toxicity spreads around. We humans are no exception. We are literally poisoning the globe, including its atmosphere, oceans and fresh water supplies. Humans also manage to spread a different kind of toxicity with their behavior. Although I maintain that niceness and goodness can spread from person to person (I feel often better after teaching a wonderful student), there is no doubt that the evil present in many of us does so with more ease. We all know poisonous people who manage to contaminate everyone around them. Often the easiest way to cope with such a human toad is to become equally toxic in our own behavior. A hostile workplace is a good example of this. Even after the initial source of poison is finally removed, it will take a long time for all the toxicity to disappear. Bad marriages cannot be salvaged. Evil behavior on a larger scale can be seen in any of our globe’s many conflicts, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Chechnya and Somalia.

In the same Science Times issue there was an article called ‘Can Humanity Survive? Want to Bet on It?’ Dr. Martin Rees, a cosmologist and the president of the Royal Society in London, gives civilization only a 50% chance of surviving until 2100. He feels that all the advances we have made and will be able to accomplish shall be undone by what he calls new global village idiots. There are a lot of pessimistic scientists around. At last our government is admitting that global warming is happening and presents a serious threat to us and everybody (duh!), but seems unwilling to go along with the Kyoto protocol. Government scientists have finally come out of the closets they were hiding in and admitted that they had been ordered to give a falsely optimistic picture of the state of our country and the world.

Personally I feel that there are far too many humans on our globe for it to support. Nature has a way of radically reducing the numbers of animals when their number increases too much. How this is going to happen with us humans remains to be seen. There are always new terrifying diseases lurking behind the corner. And the number of countries and military or terrorist organizations capable of getting their hands on nuclear or chemical weapons is growing by the day. All it takes is one or two mentally disturbed leaders to start an apocalypse. Perhaps the insanity in Iraq is a first step: at least that country’s population has been very efficiently reduced.

Last weekend I drove to beautiful British Columbia with my eldest daughter Silja. She visited a women’s prison near Maple Ridge, interviewing both staff and inmates for her upcoming book. Crossing the border used to be a breeze, especially going up to Canada. This seems no longer to be case. We were stopped and questioned by the U.S. Homeland Security even before they let us approach the Canadian officials. “Why do you want to leave the States? Why would you be writing a book about women in prison?” I wanted to say that it was none of their darn business, but managed to put on a smile and let my daughter explain. The Canadian immigration official was less friendly than I remember from numerous past visits. I think our neighbors want to start treating us the same way we treat them. Our paranoia about terrorists everywhere is already hurting our tourist industry badly: people don’t want to come here if they feel they are treated like criminals.

Canada itself shows great promise. I can’t think of another country where different ethnicities actually interact with such ease. To see a black, a Chinese, a Pakistani and a white person dining together seems perfectly normal, and mixed couples seem more the norm than an exception. In this rather small town we crossed a highway by foot, at night and in the fog, and found a little Japanese restaurant that had some of the best sushi and sashimi I’ve ever eaten. It was an unlikely discovery indeed. As far as my daughter’s prison visit went, you will have to get her book when it comes out later this year. From what I understand, guards, other staff and the inmates are on first name basis and interact like humans should; a far cry from such institutions just a hundred miles south. Perhaps they don’t have those poisonous toads up there.
Picture by Chris Gash
The New York Times