The Thousand-Year Ears

A Musical Blog

Month: November, 2013


by Jungreis

An orchestra has multiple people playing the same part. To do this out of necessity is completely foreign to me. I play guitar. If I need to be louder, I turn up the amp and bounce sound waves across the Schuylkill River (which I’ve done).

Since I can play a passage by myself at a volume appropriate for any venue (run me through the PA at the Rose Bowl), I do not need another guitarist to double my part. This puts me at the disadvantage that if I screw up, it’s all on me and everyone will notice. (This relates to my first rule of performing music: don’t make mistakes.) The advantage is that I can improvise and adjust the material as I deem appropriate for the particular piece and performance. There is one particular riff I’ve written that I’ve probably never played the same way twice; I add muted strings and play with syncopation when I feel like it. Right now, it’s just a riff. I’ve never tried to write a song around it, and I’m not sure how I could. I really don’t know how I could even get the bass guitar to play synchronized with me.

Why do you think that orchestras still simply double-up on the same lines rather than having one violin (for instance) that is played through a PA system? Tradition? (This is the part where my grandma would sing “TRADITION!” like in Fiddler on the Roof.) Do amplified violins sound goofy? I find it hard to believe that the latter is true when guitar tones (among other instruments) can be faithfully reproduced.

Is Music the Key to Success?

by copej

My sister posted this article on my wall yesterday. It discusses a notion that many of us have heard before and believe wholeheartedly: Music has additional benefits in life outside of the musical world. There is a link between music and academic success, for example. I also found it quite timely that one of the featured people in the article mentions Stravinsky as a major influence on his 1984 Apple advertisement.

Give it a read and pass along your thoughts

Subjectivity in Music

by jayhavaldar

I listen to a lot of music from France, Germany, Japan, Korea, India, and Sweden. Some of my favorite music comes from these places, and yet I understand none of it—at least, not in the conventional sense of “understanding”.

I believe that music itself is a language. Music is able to express a multitude of emotions with an incredible degree of precision. It varies between cultures and across generations, evolving along with and in relation to the people who use it as a form of communication. We parse it and create it on and an individual level. Its constituent elements work according to rules and patterns, allowing composers to divert our expectations in order to create humor or horror. In fact, the only difference between music and other conventional languages is that music is not as specific. It is a language of metaphors and feelings, rather than concrete descriptions and judgments. This is probably why vocal pieces often attach conventional language to a melody in order to create a clearer message. But if music operates on multiple linguistic levels, can we ever say what it really “means”?

In opera, the creation of libretti is recognized as a delicate and difficult task. A libretto is poetry of the highest form, expressing abstract emotions using only the concrete tools of language. Ideally, a good libretto would match the emotional tone of a melody. If, as in the case of Wagner, both are totally under the control of the artist, then the creation of such a coherent vision is much more possible. There is always a degree of discrepancy, however, and the same music without words could never mean precisely the same thing. We must understand that even in conventional languages, understanding is subjective. In music, this subjectivity is magnified by the inherently polysemous quality of the language. Adding words to music sacrifices some sincerity for clarity, but ultimately it is impossible to totally direct an individual’s understanding of the piece.

When l listen to foreign music, I fail to hear the entirety of the author’s intent—but I think that’s okay. The music affects me in the first place because of how I perceive it. To me, the musician is dead, but the music is still very much alive. Does this matter? Somewhat. I enjoy music sometimes for its craft. But sometimes I enjoy music for its effects rather than its causes. And I can enjoy foreign music this way just as much as a native speaker can.

Ode To Napoleon? Or Hitler?

by nrho

I recently had the privilege of going to see the Daedalus Quartet perform at the Penn Museum. To give a little background, the Penn Humanities Forum, every year, organizes a variety of activities that are based on a specific. This year’s theme is violence. The Daedalus Quartet named their program “Music from Exile” after the composers of their chosen works who, in some way or another, were forced into exile by the Third Reich. One of the works they performed was Ode to Napoleon composed by Arnold Schoenberg, an artist we talked about last class. This post will introduce the piece and perhaps provide some analysis regarded the piece’s sonic qualities.

In 1942, Schoenberg was approached by the League of Composers to compose a piece that was to employ few instruments and be performed during the next concert season. Schoenberg did not understand nor did he approve of Nazi Germany’s obsession with totality and the singular leader. Apparently, Schoenberg believed it was his moral duty to “take a stand against tyranny.” This statement makes sense given the nature of the piece. As we know from class, Schoenberg was one of the fathers of and first believers in the concept of atonality. The Ode to Napoleon incorporates a string quartet, a piano, and a baritone as a narrator. The piece can only be described as evil an eerie. The strings are constantly creating dissonant chords together, and the piano perpetually clashes with every other performing force. There are times with the pace speeds up creating a sense of dire “franticness.” The narrator emphatically recites Lord Byron’s poem “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” over the sound of the string and piano.  The lyrics speak of the atrocities and evil committed and demonstrated by Napoleon, and it’s easily translated into Schoenberg’s disapproval of Hitler. It’s best if you give the piece a listen.<;

While this isn’t music I’d ever choose to listen to for pure enjoyment, it sure delivers a message, and in doing so, packs a strong punch. The piece is moving and chilling.

Selling Your Soul

by Jungreis

In class, we talked about various rumors that surrounded Paganini. One was that he had sex with women and then murdered them to use their intestines to string his violins. The other was that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to acquire his immense technical violin skills. While the former rumor seems like an odd way for jealousy to manifest, the latter makes a lot of sense to me, and in some sense – certainly not a supernatural one — is kind of true.

Long ago, there was a blues guitarist named Robert Johnson. His playing was somewhat simple compared to a more modern blues player like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nonetheless, Johnson was regarded as very good, and his influence on 60s blues-rock alone justifies his inclusion on lists of great guitarists. That same rumor appeared around him: Robert Johnson went to a crossroads in Mississippi and made a deal with the Devil, exchanging his soul for his guitar skills.

I do not believe that story, though I see where it comes from. Johnson must have played an awful lot to acquire his skills. Consequently, most of his time must have been spent practicing rather than pursuing activities that society deems more important that guitar playing. If he was spending 15 hours every day practicing, which is a number that is about what modern virtuoso players cite as how much they practiced when they were obsessive, that’s 75 hours without even counting weekends, and this was not a high school kid with nothing better to do over the summer. This was an adult who probably needed a job. In that sense, while he didn’t sell his soul in any supernatural way, Johnson did indeed make a massive sacrifice to become as good as he was. I have to think that the same was true of Paganini.

Viennese Schools

by selimani2013

I was really interested in the Second Viennese School, so I continued to look more into after class. For starters why was the Second Viennese School not like the first? What was the influence behind it, and what drew the pupils to the school? What made the school so appealing, because it got very spread out to Berlin and the United States.

We learned that Berg and Webern were his two first students and some of his top students, but they were already experienced composers. What was it that drew them and the others to Schoenberg’s school. Was it his twelve-tone technique specifically? I do not think so.  Many of Schoenberg’s students did not even follow his rules of compositions (for example his rule about a single row being used throughout a composition). Why did they come to school to learn if they would not use their teacher’s techniques?  I sadly could not find any influences as to why Schoenberg started this school. Was it because he actually wanted to teach, or he wanted to be known for being the creator of something and then spreading his techniques to others?

We know the First Viennese School was not truly a school like the second one. It was just a term used to clump composers together during the classical period in Vienna. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, all who we learned about in class, and  know they never worked together. Why is it that this term (“First Viennese School”) is used for them? Perhaps it is because they all knew each other well and were slightly influenced by one another, just like Schoenberg influenced many of his students.

Did the First Viennese School get named before the other one or vice versa? I believe the First was named first because when you look at the Second Viennese School, it is usually just known as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern working closely together and influencing each other. It is still a group of three composers working on the same type of music in the same era.

But looking further ahead to the Third Viennese School, we see that it too was just a group of composers, and not as many as the Second School. Why did this one not prosper as much as the second one did. It goes back to how the first one was, not truly a school where there was one teacher. Why was this lineage of naming a group of composers stopped after the third?

Why do you think the Second Viennese School is the only one that was an actual school and why was it the only one to actually prosper into a bigger group and have a huge number of so many diverse different students? Do you believe it was Schoenberg’s ideas, the way he taught, the time he decided to start the school, how his music was considered degenerate music at the time? What was so special about the Second Viennese School. If it had been Berg or Webern would it have prospered as much, was it solely Schoenberg by himself?

A few last questions I leave with you all, why do we not see more groups of composers or artist collaborating with one another and teaching and influencing each other? Why has that aspect of music gone away?

Genre Battles

by Robert Li

One interesting aspect of the late Romantic period relates to the conservatist versus progressivist movement. It’s strange how there can be such a large divergence in the musical community and how different schools of thought form. With composers like Schumann, you have a group who prefers the classical forms of music and a standard form of nomenclature for their pieces. On the other hand, composers like Liszt and Wagner let emotions or impressions dictate the form, tonality, and melodies of their pieces. It’s also evident in the romantic and descriptive method in which they name their pieces.

I believe this trend is interesting seeing as how it manifested in the rock and metal genres. If we think about the beginning of this genre, many of the instruments, scales, and melodies began with blues. The guitar riffs and acoustic guitar would eventually move to jazz. However, at some point, musicians realized that they could take their guitars and amplify them.  By using gain on the guitars, new effects could be created, especially as electronics and digital effects came into play. In 1965, Bob Dylan helped spearhead this movement by transitioning from a folk musician into a rock musician by using electric guitars in his music. You can see how he was met with a lot of criticism by fans of Dylan’s folk work here:

In addition, you can see how genres can be mixed in many solo metal music. Yngwie Malmsteen, once a virtuoso violinist, decided to take the classical structures that he had learned from playing the violin to the electric guitar. He takes the arpeggio form and makes an entire song:

How should we think about genres? Are there stringent rules governing how a piece of music can be classified? How has that changed over time?

And Let There Be Parody!

by Junting Meng

Throughout this semester we have delved in depth into the mind and rationale of composers. What do they want to achieve with their music? How do they go about implementing the various techniques to achieve their goals? These are but a few questions to ask when analyzing pieces of music in the context of the composer. Even though most of the composers that we have studied concentrated on the more serious and technical side of this art—religious implications, tonality, and harmony—I would like to direct our attention to a particular composer that chose to focus on the more humorous side of music. I’m sure many of you know him. His name is Alfred Matthew Yankovic, more commonly known as “Weird Al” Yankovic.

For the small number of you that do not recognize this legendary persona, I most definitely recommend you to check out some of his pieces after reading my post. The majority of Weird Al’s work is a collection of parodies based on pop music of the time. His career has spanned decades long and he has been awarded three Grammys and multiple other wins and nominations. In fact, many star musicians nowadays consider it to be very prestigious to have their works featured in Weird Al’s collection. It is seen essentially as a rite of passage into stardom. Some of the artists that have been parodied include Michael Jackson (a huge fan of Weird Al’s), Nirvana, Lady Gaga, and my personal all time favorite: Chamillionaire. Though some artists prefer their works to not be featured as a parody by Weird Al, many whole heartedly support his ventures.

Check out some of his notable parodies below:

“White & Nerdy” parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’”

“The Saga Begins” parody of Don McLean’s “American Pie” revolving around the story of Star Wars

“Eat It” parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”

So what exactly do these parodies entail? Besides generating a boat load of Benjamins and showering immense fame to their creator, I believe they also attempt to make an interesting commentary on music, specifically pop music. Weird Al shows us that we really shouldn’t take music too seriously. Music plays a versatile role but its extremes should not be extended to the point of utter obsession. When die-hard fans argue over the prestige and respect of their favorite pop artist/group, it sometimes becomes too ridiculous. Yes, maybe the song has some supposed deep, philosophical, metaphysical meaning that will change our way of existence as we know it but just calm down and let me enjoy the tune. So what do you guys think of Weird Al? Do you like his parodies? Do you agree with my interpretation that music should not be taken too seriously?

Composition before death

by jaeyoungshin

Many times, composers’ circumstances and mind influence the music. This is why when we learn about some composers’ music, we also learn their brief biographic background or certain situation they were in when they wrote certain pieces.

Of course, composers react differently to similar situations. When composers face a devastating situation, some respond by expressing their doomed fate and melancholy mood. However, some actually express hope and optimism that they will overcome or at least learn something out of it.

Personally, I find the latter much more inspirational. With this post, I would like to propose one inspirational and hopeful work from Schubert that he composed near death. Schubert was a talented composer but unfortunately not a steady one in terms of age. His health already started to deteriorate in midst of his creative activities. By the late 1820s, Schubert already confided to some friends that he was near death. Schubert eventually died in Vienna, at age 31 on November 1828. His official diagnosis of death was a typhoid fever, but his exact death is still controversial with various theories that he might have died with syphilis or mercury poisoning.

But above all, the important fact is that he managed to compose a beautiful song when he knew he was clearly dying. It is symphony no.9 in C major, which is usually called “the great.” Although it is now known that he drew a rough sketch in summer of 1825, he finished this piece in the last month of his life. One can see from its nickname of the music, “the great,” that this piece conveys a majestic, hopeful feeling. but I always feel uplifted and excited when I hear this piece. It is not easy to imagine that Schubert wrote this song in his bed near death. It certainly celebrates lives rather than mourn about it.

What do you think? Would you be able to compose a hopeful song when you are dying? Do you agree that knowing this background information allow you to understand the piece better?

Opera in English: Does it Make a Difference?

by Kirk Webb

Throughout the semester, we have seen several Italian operas and a couple of German operas. Recently, I began to wonder if operas written with English librettos ever gained any popularity. After doing some research, I learned that English operas do exist, but they never gained as much popularity as the Italian operas and were relatively uncommon until the 20th century. As you learn about the following operas and watch some video clips, how does the English libretto change the way you experience the performance? Do you find that you are more easily able to connect with the music when you can understand the libretto? Also, in the following videos, the two operas are interpreted extremely differently in terms of scale. Which do you prefer?

“Dido and Aeneas”, by Henry Purcell, was completed in 1683 and is considered by many to be the first English-language operatic masterpiece. The synopsis can be found via this link:

“Dido’s Lament”


Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,

On thy bosom let me rest,

More I would, but Death invades me;

Death is now a welcome guest.

When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create

No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;

Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

“Acis and Galatea”, composed by Handel in 1731, was the only Handel opera set to an English libretto. It is known as a pastoral opera, conveying the simplicity of rural life in England. It tells the story of Acis, a shepherd, and Galatea, a nymph. They fall in love and are joyful until Polyphemus, a giant, appears and eventually kills Acis. Galatea mourns Acis and then immortalizes him by turning him into a beautiful fountain.

“Pleasure in the Plains”