The Thousand-Year Ears

A Musical Blog

Month: November, 2013

Girls Rock

by Jungreis

Josquin, Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Haydn, Bach…what do they all have in common?

I will not give an anatomy lesson.

This course has focused almost exclusively on male composers. There is valid rationale behind that, the reasons behind which go beyond this course: the great works in Western music have tended to be written by men. The course would be flagrantly fraudulent in advertising itself as a tour of Western music if it did not hit on pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth. Yes, we listened to a little bit by Clara Schumann, but her husband was a famous composer, so she gets fame by association. (She was also quite good.)

For now, I’m not going to concern myself with why it is the case that old, “classical” music is so male-dominated. I don’t care, because it’s ridiculous. Plenty of good music, even from traditionally male-dominated genres like shred guitar, has come from women.

I want to recognize a few contemporary ladies who play awesome music, some of whom I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog. I will certainly think of an awful omission right after I post this, so when you see that I’ve left off some of your favorites, note that I’ve done the same to myself.

Tarja Turunen: Tarja was the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Nightwish, until her husband started managing the band and the keyboard player disliked dealing with him. They fired her immediately after a big concert in Helsinki, Finland; the show is now known as End of an Era. That was quite the era, though. They recorded great songs like Wishmaster, Stargazers, Romanticide (awesome title…stupid rap section towards the end), and Ever Dream. Tarja’s unbelievable vocals are critical to these songs being as good as they are. In fact, when Nightwish was forming, the intention was not to form a metal band. It was only after the others in the band realized that her vocals were much too powerful for an acoustic rock band that they went towards metal.

Orianthi: She has a last name, though she doesn’t use it professionally and I don’t know it. She is a guitar player. She worked with Michael Jackson towards the end of his life. She’s played with Steve Vai, who I’ve remarked is one of the all-time great guitarists. Her instrumental with Vai, Highly Strung, is a really cool combination of guitar harmonies and guitar combat. (The “combat” remark will make complete sense once you listen to the song.) Most of her other original music is pop/punk that is heavy on the pop, though she’s managed to put some cool guitar licks into mainstream-sounding songs, which I of course support – probably under all circumstances.

Ana Vidović: She is amazing. Ana is a classical guitarist; she does not write or even arrange her own material, as far as I know, though I really like the idea of her being part of a group that does original music. Nonetheless, I’ve posted on here a bunch of times that the mark of a great player isn’t just the ability to do what seems impossible, but the ability to do so while making it look easy, even mundane. I saw her in September in Baltimore. Some of what she played was incredibly demanding, and I’m a guitarist; I know the tricks we use to make ourselves seem better than we really are! She looked like “Ho hum.”

Lzzy Hale: Halestorm has about five good songs, but that’s not Lzzy’s fault. Vocally, she is at the other end of the spectrum from Tarja – very good, but hardly polished. It works better that way. Halestorm is much angrier than Nightwish, though I’d love to hear Hale singing at least one section Romanticide. (It is the angry part of the song, but still not the silly rap section at the end that should not exist.) What I in fact blame for Halestorm’s mediocrity is a perceived loss of aggression in a heavy rock setting due to having a female band member, and then overcompensating (in inane ways) for something that is in fact not missing.

(By the way, I’ve spelled her name right. For whatever reason, she does not write an “i” in what is pronounced “Lizzie”.)

Since Lzzy also plays the guitar (sometimes), I like the following idea. Have her learn to play the bass; it’s like the guitar but you get confused at first when you’re playing the highest strings. Ana and Orianthi will be the guitar tandem. Orianthi has the 80s shred style, and while Ana claims not to be so great with a pick, I’m sure that she would be just fine using a pick for rhythm playing and then using her fingers for lead lines. Tarja will be the lead vocalist, though she will split time with Lzzy and to some extent Orianthi. The band still lacks a drummer, so maybe grab Meg White from The White Stripes and see what happens.

Yes, the band has a lot of different styles that have the potential to clash. It would take some adjusting by all of them. They could pull it off, though. After all, these girls rock.

The Dance of Eternity

by Jungreis

One of our reading assignments concerns the free exploration of the full range of tones available, without regard for adhering to standard conventions (scales). I support doing this in the practice room. (The performance isn’t the time to get cute.) The other fundamental part of music that has a standard structure that is often ignored is rhythm. “Common time” (4/4) is four notes to a beat, the standard “1 2 3 4” that everyone knows. It is also somewhat common to play with a rhythm that is not at all like 4/4.

Go to YouTube and watch a music video for “The Dance of Eternity” by Dream Theater. (In fact, listen to that whole Scenes from a Memory album, and while you’re at it, listen to every Dream Theater song that’s posted, particularly “Under a Glass Moon” and “Stream of Consciousness”.) In a few places, the rhythm is fairly normal, no matter how bizarre it is to hear a ragtime piano solo in the middle of that song. Most of the rest of the song is not in standard four-four time, but rather “chaos-four” time. I do not quite consider it free time, as there is a clear structure and plan that they’re following (at least clear to them), but I’ve thought about how I would write the music, and I’m clueless about what kind of time signature I would use for most parts of the song. They at least have the decency in “Stream of Consciousness” to play in 5/4 for a while, and “Under a Glass Moon” isn’t even that weird.

I have a transcription (by someone else) of “The Dance of Eternity”. Here are the time signatures of eight consecutive measures: 3/8, 7/16, 2/4, 7/16, 5/8, 7/16, 2/4, 3/8. For the few seconds of music in those eight measures, the choices make sense to me. At the same time, the meter is supposed to be a guide to the performer about what the rhythm is, more or less. It will mathematically work out (eventually) to write something in 4/4 even if it really lasts five beats (after 20 beats, everything works out), but it would be extremely misleading in my opinion to write the Mission Impossible theme in 4/4 time, expecting the performers to catch up every five measures.

I don’t know how to handle something as bizarre as the Dream Theater example. The best I can do is to use something like a dotted vertical line to denote the end of a measure, suggesting to the performer to take my notation with a grain of salt: don’t expect the time signatures to be at all helpful in learning the song.

Now consider Tool’s song “Schism”. I’ve always seen the main riff with the quick triplet written in alternating 5/8 and 7/8. That is not the least bit helpful in clarifying what the rhythm should be, though it’s completely correct. However, combining 5 and 7 to write the riff in 12/8 is probably worse. There’s no triplet rhythm as 12/8 typically indicates. (The “triplet” to which I referred is just a quick flash of three notes; it is unrelated to the triplet rhythm suggested by 12/8 time.)

I think one sign of a good songwriter is the ability to write something good that is difficult to notate.

Where do YOU draw the line?

by cgallopo

In our latest class discussion, we touched upon the likes of John Cage and Alison Knowles, two performers whose performances blur the lines between music, performance art, and something completely different. With performances ranging from the absurd “Shoes of your choice” from Alison Knowles, in which the performer puts his or her shoes on a music stand and then speaks about them for an undetermined amount of time, to John Cage’s “4’33””, in which the performer lifts the lid of the piano and then sits in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Now, before this goes any further, let me preface this post by saying two things: first of all, I’m a huge fan of John Cage – I was introduced to his compositions in a music class my freshman year and have had an affinity and an appreciation for him ever since. Second, I do intend to open up a class-wide discussion on what we consider music, or performance art, or simply a lady talking about her shoes. I am genuinely curious about the class’s opinion, because I do not consider the aforementioned compositions (and others like them) to be music.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines music as “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity”. Although I am certainly not opposed to learning about performance artists pushing the limits of expression, I’m not sure that “Shoes of your choice” in any way fits the definition of music. In a class titled 1000 Years of Musical Listening, I am asking the open question of “where does this fit?” Clearly it lies somewhere along the music spectrum, or it would not have been introduced in class; I am curious as to how others delineate their respective spectrums, and whether or not they include Alison Knowles and John Cage.

The music class that I referred to in the second paragraph was MUSC-016 The Technologies of Listening. In this class, we explored the idea of sound, the reproduction of sound, and silence; it was John Cage’s fascination with absolute silence that intrigued me the most. He went so far as to visit an anechoic chamber at Harvard to experience the quietest place on earth. While Cage compositions are fascinating, my music spectrum is such that these pieces lay beyond it’s boundaries.

Igor Stravinsky—20th Century Role Model

by qkalantary

Igor Stravinsky was an incredible character and thankfully, the first composer we’ve studied who was captured on film. When I first saw him hit a chord he loved over and over again on the piano, it was hard not to smile (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vwq1AyYGzo). This composer had a special personality in his own right. Stravinsky was all about the power of music in itself, rather than as a form of expression or something meant to generate an emotional response. To me, this at first seemed contradictory. It was hard not to see the joy that Stravinsky had playing that 8 note chord—why does he claim to care little of emotion? When i investigated this quote in context, it was much easier to understand his argument.

 

Stravinsky said that these people who focus on emotion in music “want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realize its intrinsic value.” He further says listening is different from hearing. “A duck hears also.” Stravinsky thought of music as something further than entertainment. He thought of music as that which transcended humanity’s seemingly innate desire to “feel” a certain way. This is why he is so often thought of as a mechanical musician. To be fair, he did refer to himself as “a maker” in a documentary and claims that for him the process of making music was more satisfying than the final process. In his work, Stravinsky showed that this new style of 20th century music may not be directly appealing to the emotional sides of the human existence. He was so controversial that he was even escorted away from his productions like a prized fighter after a match. Stravinsky’s attitude towards emotions in music was very unconventional for the time yet eventually matched the lack of convention in his music and the music of the 20th century, where all rules were broken and musicians were free to do things which seemed far too outlandish for the confines of a symphony or opera.

 

See a great documentary on his life here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSJQwkBKKBo

Jon Schmidt and The Piano Guys

by bstrekha

In class we were briefly introduced to many modernist styles. Professor Dolan mentioned that it is very difficult to study modern music in the sense that it does not follow any strict order or path. This is because of the vast modernisms that emerged during the time. Well, I would like to add one more composer to our already long list of modern composers/musicians. His name is Jon Schmidt. (He is part of the American musical group The Piano Guys. You might know the group from their YouTube channel.)

Before getting to music composed by Jon Schmidt, I would like to note that he (along with the group) also renditions existing music. Sometimes the renditions are so different from the original compositions, yet they are always recognizable. I’m not sure what exactly to call the rendition that follows. I wouldn’t exactly say it’s prepared piano, but it isn’t your tradition playing either.

Rendition: Check out “What Makes Your Beautiful” by the Piano Guys. (Yes, it is a rendition of a song by One Direction…)

Link:

“What Makes You Beautiful”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VqTwnAuHws

Not only does Jon Schmidt rendition music, but he also composes. Jon Schmidt likes to call his style “New Age Classical.” I think this is a fair enough name, as his music isn’t radical like Schoenberg’s, but it isn’t your typical Mozart music either. In terms of tonality, his music is close to that of the Viennese-Classical composers. In other words, his music tends to have a tonic and a direct sense of forward motion. However, he does like to throw in a few clashes and “unnatural” accidentals.

I recommend listening to “All of Me”, “Road Trip”, and “Waterfall” on YouTube. These are original pieces composed by Schmidt.

Links:

“All of Me”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fAZIQ-vpdw (Composed at age 17.)

“Road Trip”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0KAm-06AO0

“Waterfall”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P9hAN-teOU (Composed at age 19.)

I just wanted to share this music because I think it’s nice to see live musicians in our time and what their imagination leads to. Hope you enjoy.

 

P.S. Check out the Piano Guys in general. They have many great recordings posted on YouTube.

Why are we so attracted to art?

by lizabernstein

After discussing Alison Knowles in class, I became quite intrigued by the idea of fluxus.  It seemed to take the most ordinary things, like something so random and simple as salad, and turn it into a complex art, creating an act that people wanted to be a part of.  In class, I was extremely surprised by the idea of fluxus.  As it was explained, I scrunched my nose and found the concept quite silly – I just didn’t get it.  But I wanted to get it.  So, I searched online to find some more examples of fluxus and realized that I had not only encountered this art many times before, but I had admired it each time.  Upon this realization, I wondered why in class I had found the idea so strange, whereas in “real life” I had found fluxus so appealing?

I believe that this discrepancy occurred because of the difference between listening and experiencing.  In my opinion, fluxus is all about being in the room, absorbing the act, sometimes even becoming a part of it.  You can’t understand fluxus by having someone explain it to you; you have to be in the moment watching it.  Once I realized this, my epiphany seemed blatantly obvious.  Especially in our class, you can’t just learn through listening to a lecture.  If all we did was listen to Professor Dolan, we wouldn’t really understand music.  Instead, we experience the music.  We listen to it, we analyze it, we talk about it.  This made me realize that art is about so much more than just learning.  It’s about understanding through experience.  And maybe that’s why people are so fond of art.  When we listen to or experience art, we aren’t being told what to think or what to understand.  Most of the time, we are coming up with our own ideas, our own beliefs.  Art doesn’t limit us, it lets us expand.

So, now I ask you guys, why are you guys so intrigued by art?  Do you think it has to do with the “experience” component? How do you experience art?  I’m curious to see if others feel the same way.

Numbers and Music

by carlyjroman

I have always heard about the connection between music and math. It is all about the connection between sound and rhythm, counting and measuring, harmony, form, frequency, tuning, scale, and composition–all integral components of both math and music. It has been said that the study of each subject are so closely related that if a student is trained in music they will actually excel more in math (or at least do better in math than they might have without musical training). Even Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, is said to have conducted experiments with musical instruments and studied the relationship between numbers and musical harmony, finding the connection between musical scales and ratios.

It’s interesting to learn about Schoenberg’s obsession with numbers and to consider whether this was a function of some extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder or a deeper, more organic manifestation of the connection between music and math. Pierro Lunaire, Schoenberg’s melodrama, is commonly known as Opus 21.  It is 21 poems, broken up into three sets of seven, written with seven-note motifs. Each poem is made up of 13 lines with the first line of each poem being repeated three times (on lines seven and 13). The piece was performed by an ensemble of seven people, if you include the conductor. In addition, he was born on the 13th day of a month and died on the 13th day of a month at the age of 76, with 7 and 6 equalling 13! At some point be developed an aversion to the number 13, going so far as to renumbering his measures 12, 12a, and 14 in order to avoid the number 13.

Clearly Schoenberg was excited by numerology. Was this a basis of his musical talent? Was it a result of his musical talent? Was it mere coincidence?

Fluxus

by zachlichtenstein

As we discussed in class last week, Fluxus, which began in 1958 with John Cage, blends different types of media and emphasizes the importance of the conceptual. There is a distinct relationship between art and everyday life, and Fluxus allows ordinary people to perform and be on the stage. George Brecht, a prominent member of the Fluxus movement, said that “concert halls, theaters, and art galleries were mummifying,” so Fluxus artists preferred “streets, homes, and railway stations.” This quotation further emphasizes the fact that Fluxus is art for the common person. Many people who were involved in the Fluxus genre were interested in having flux communities to allow Flux artists to live close together and share similar ideas and beliefs. The first of one of these communities was in France.

In class we looked at Alison Knowles, one of the major members of the Fluxus movement. Her “Newspaper Event” is an example of Fluxus and it is where different news articles are read in different languages at different times and volumes, according to a composer. Another example of Fluxus is where a performer attempts to play a note on a clarinet that is suspended in the air without using his hands. There is also one where an instrument is hitched between two horses that pull in opposite directions until the instrument breaks into two halves.

Alison Knowles was born in 1933 and was married to Dick Higgins, another prominent Fluxus artist. She attended Middlebury College and then Pratt University where she earned a degree in fine art. Throughout her career she has worked with the most influential Fluxus artists, including John Cage with whom she published a book of visual music scores with. Her most famous Fluxus work is called “Make a Salad” and it draws large audiences wherever it is performed. As one can see in the video below, “Make a Salad” is exactly like the title indicates.

 

This video is an Alison Knowles’ Fluxus called “Make a Salad.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc5_pexVob8

 

This video is a George Brecht Fluxus calling “Drip Music.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnsaK7aiCuI

 

This link has different examples of Fluxus event scores.

http://cuma.periplurban.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/fluxus.pdf

 

What are people’s thoughts about Fluxus? In the link with different examples of Fluxus event scores (the third link), which one is your favorite? Which do you think is the most outrageous? Do you consider Fluxus a type of art? Why or why not?

Ratios (WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MATH CONTENT)

by Jungreis

Earlier in the term, we discussed how the style of tuning used in Bach’s time was based on ratios from Pythagoras. Pythagoras did indeed like ratios. He believed that every number could be written as a ratio. He was wrong. The canonical example is the square root of 2. There is a simple proof of this, and anyone interested in seeing the proof should construct it, or you can let Vi Hart explain.

Back to music…

It makes no sense to me that musical tuning should be based on the incorrect theory of Pythagoras. Yes, there was that demonstration in class where an interval in Pythagorean tuning gave the pretty picture while the interval played in modern tuning gave the fuzzy image. What’s wrong with the fuzzy image? It sounded fine to me; it sounded like music (or at least the beginning of music).

The modern style of tuning ruins the idea of basing intervals on ratios. That mathematical idea is replaced by something much more beautiful in my mind: symmetry. The circle of fifths is a cyclic group! Starting on any tone, I can ascend by any interval and eventually arrive back at the original tone. (There will be an octave or multi-octave difference. There is a mathematical way of dealing with this, and I can get into that with anyone who is interested.)

Does anyone support Pythagorean tuning over equal-tempered tuning? Why? Keep in mind that Pythagoras was wrong about ratios! Most numbers can’t be written as ratios! (It is mathematically sound to say that almost all numbers are unable to be written as ratios of integers.)

What Is Genre

by Jungreis

One of the comments made early in the class is that referring to every piece of music we cover as a “song” is like remarking that War and Peace is a great poem. A symphony is not a song! Our teacher remarked to me that the reason for this sort of classification system is because you know about what you’re getting what you’re told that something is a character piece like the particular piece about which I was asking.

This class is using “song” as a genre.

This is a song.

This is a song.

Imagine my poor mother being told to listen to a song and expecting to hear something like Taylor Swift, only to hear Hetfield and Hammett crash in with that opening E powerchord. Even worse, imagine me expecting to hear some awesome Metallica song, only being tricked into having to listen to…

Conclusion: Taylor Swift and Metallica play rather different styles of songs.

I would call the genre of the former song “Pop” and the latter “Metal”. I suspect that I’ve not caused controversy with this stance. In fact, by modern conventions, I’m right, and incontestably so. Swift is a pop/country performer, and while Metallica didn’t quite invent metal, they were among the pioneers of thrash.

There is a clear disconnect between the ways contemporary music fans use “genre” and how musicologists use it. If the distinction is just an issue of terminology, then I think that it would be fine to use “genre” to describe one of these two facets of the music.

I don’t think that the two uses are completely unrelated, however, but I definitely don’t see how “Master of Puppets” and whatever Taylor Swift song I posted can be related as “songs” with the justification being that you know what to expect from a song.

Does anyone see some common element in symphonies, for example, that goes beyond the structure we discussed in class, something that would allow me to write a rock symphony by my four man band (the arrangement is basically Megadeth with a better singer) that sounds nothing like a symphony written for an orchestra, yet is still accurately described as a symphony rather than just an epic rock song? (Ignore for now my inability to write such a piece of music.)