Sunday, May 30, 2004

A thin line between post-modern genius and hackery

First, I have to say that I have not seen the new Troy movie yet, nor plan to until it is available at Blockbuster. But I found the following review both hilarious and tempting. I want to hear the references myself, especially the mind-numbing idea of the Groban reworking of Vaughan Williams. I also want to make a list of all the examples of thievery that Horner has committed in this film and his previous entries, but that has already been done.

So I will resign myself to offering a different take on the inclusion of Britten in Horner's masterful "deconstructive requotation." The War Requiem was written as a denunciation of war, though ostensibly to celebrate the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. Britten felt that all war was wicked and wrong, including World War II, which is usually cited as the paragon of the "just war." By simplifying Britten's music into trite martial fanfares, Horner is capturing the hopelessness of preventing future war. Pacifism becomes jingoism by misconstrual and dumbing down of ideals. Horner has created a statement of pure genius. Or the man is a hack.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Für Denise

Chad Orzel creates very interesting mix tapes, and has a much greater knowledge of both physics and pop music than I could ever attain. But the reason I am writing this post is to point out a debate between him and Brad DeLong. This is a subtle debate, in that Brad makes a point, Chad calls him a heretic, the end. So, whose version of "Like a Rolling Stone" is better, Dylan's or Mellencamp's?

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

So long, and thanks for all the Phish

Please let the ice cream remain!

I'll tell you what's wrong with the music industry!

In one sentence, no less.

(Via the Rambler)

C sides

Tim Johnston has an interesting take on Terry Riley's In C. I don't think I agree with his suggestion that a V7 chord is heard when the F gains some prominance. This is only possible if the listener is actively trying to put a harmonic progression to the piece, and even then the progression is ill-fitted to the music. The F does introduce some dissonance, which could be thought of as a move towards a cadence with the resolution of the dissonance. But this dissonance is not of a standard dominant feel, even a dominant feel over a pedal tone. Call it a dissonant extension, or the introduction of a non-chord-tone, or a Hindemith-ian change of chord series with the half-step dissonance between the E and F.

I do agree that the piece is more than just an interesting concept, and one that can be performed quite musically. A friend performed it with 20 players at her graduate recital at Eastman in 1997. It was a great conclusion, the final notes ringing in the hall and in our ears.

I'm getting civil unioned in the morning...

The Indianapolis Star has conducted a poll on the views towards homosexual marriage or civil unions by Hoosiers. As Atrios points out, the spin of the article does not really reflect the results of the poll. A full 50% of the 700 polled supported either marriage or unions, with 3/5 of the support for civil unions but not marriage. The title of the article is "Few Hoosiers back gay marriage," and the article itself continues this emphasis on the negative aspects:
Less than a quarter of Hoosiers say gay couples should be allowed to marry, while almost half say there should be no legal recognition of their relationship,...

Other encouraging signs that were downplayed in the article include the fact that almost half of those polled knew a family member, close friend, or co-worker that was homosexual. Also downplayed was the fact that gay marriage was ranked as the seventh most important issue in the upcoming governer's race, out of eight issues offered.

The biggest positive that I saw was that 2/3 of Hoosiers under 35 support marriage or civil unions. After exposure to countless positive portrayals of homosexual people in mass media and the growing support for coming out publically in high schools and colleges, young people are quite aware of the number of friends and family that are affected by the current unequal status quo. This is quite encouraging for the future, and a big reason why older conservatives are pushing for constitutional amendments that would prevent changes that future generations will want to make.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Well-Tempered Clavier Online

Tim Smith, a music theorist and choral conductor at Northern Arizona University, has created a great website on Bach's two books of keyboard works exploring the limits of tuning and keys. This website combines scores with digital recordings of Smith's colleague, David Korevaar, and offers analyses of both theoretical and historical interest.

As someone who will be teaching a counterpoint class next spring, I am very excited about the Index of Contrapuntal Operations, Learning Objects, and Concepts. This lists the number of voices in each prelude and fugue, the number of subject entries, whether the answer is tonal or real, if there is a countersubject, and whether the piece has an instance of specific types of contrapuntal operations: stretto, melodic inversion, invertible counterpoint, augmentation, and the BACH motive (not really a contrapuntal operation, but still very useful). Beneath the index is a description of key concepts that
are involved in each prelude or fugue, along with a list of questions that students can answer online and email to instructors. These questions require the student to read the provided narratives, check out links like Bach Digital for sketch study, listen to and analyze the specific piece, and relate the specific piece to the overall collection. This is an excellent source for teachers, and one that I plan to use extensively.

(via Crooked Timber)

Variations on a blog

I have altered the comments for this blog, moving from Blogger's system that requires becoming a member of Blogger to Haloscan's more neutral system. Plus Haloscan provides trackback. In the process of switching over, all 2 comments (one by me) were erased. Let me know what you think of the new comments system.

Also, check out the updated links section to the left. I'll be adding more later, especially sites specific to music.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Riots in Paris

On NPR's Weekend Edition yesterday, a biography of George Anthiel began with a discussion of the premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacré du Printemps in Paris on May 29, 1913. The apocryphal story is that Stravinsky's music was so primitive and dissonant that the audience rioted. This was supported by the critic Pierre Lalo:
The essential characteristic of Le Sacre du printemps is that is the most dissonant and the most discordant composition that has ever been written... Never before has the system and cult of the wrong note been applied with such industry, zeal, and obstinacy. (Le Temps, June 3, 1913).

However, most music historians now agree that the riots were caused not by the music, but by the riot-happy Parisians. Concert versions within the same year were received with great enthusiasm, and the open dress rehearsal had gone without incident the day before. Nizhinsky, the choreographer, had been panned for his setting of Debussy's Jeux two weeks earlier, and the open design of the new theater and hot weather encouraged bad behavior from an atypical audience (mostly tourists).

NPR had used this story to show how passionate audiences used to be. While it is true that art music has been "ritualized" too much, demanding silent and well-behaved audiences that are socially constrained from expressing their feelings except at certain times (the end of an aria or scene, the end of a piece), the riot is not a good example of passionate feelings from the typical audience of yesteryear.

A colleague of mine (from the Women's Studies department) had used the story to suggest that Stravinsky's musical language was horribly shocking. Again, the result is basically true: Stravinsky's use of rhythm, harmony, and orchestration was an example of extremes for that time, though not a break from his previous ballets ( Firebird and Petroushka) or horribly outlandish compared to contemporary works by Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. But the riots were not indicative of these extremes.

The truest thing that can be said about the Parisian riots over The Rite of Spring is that it set a benchmark of succès de scandale for all avante-garde composers to strive for. This riot set Stravinsky's reputation as the leader in Modernist music, whether he caused it or not. As a recommendation to new composers who wish to make a name for themselves, make sure your audience does not like your music and has a predeliction for expressing its displeasure.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

War Songs

Over in the UK, Jonathan Duffy wanted to know where have all the protest songs gone? This was written in 2003, but it is still a valid point. There are no rallying songs or anthems to catch the spirit of the crowds. (Though the Bomb Iraq song is pretty good.)
This is not from a lack of trying. Here is a list of 10 songs made specifically about the war.

Last week, my brother and his girlfriend went to see Ani Di Franco in New York. Though I lived in Ani's hometown of Buffalo for a year, I was not exposed to her political songs until a DePauw student played one for me about two years ago. Her combination of poetic imagery, blatant political ranting, and catchy grooves made her a good addition to the fine tradition of protest songs.

Eric Idle has a new song about Iraq, the president, and the FCC. Warning, this contains one of George Carlin's seven words, repeated quite often.

Willie Nelson wrote the second protest song of his life, "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?"

The problem seems to be in the corporate structure of commercial radio. James Sullivan writes about the songs that you won't get to hear, thanks to Clear Channel. But we are not constrained to radio anymore. Bloggers and MoveOn should link to protest songs whenever possible. Air America should air these songs whenever possible. (I should say that I haven't been listening to Chuck D's show, has he been playing these songs?)

Monday, May 17, 2004

The VP Valse

Right now there are many calls for McCain to be picked as Kerry's running mate in the US presidential elections. Ken Bode, DePauw's Distinguished Professor of Journalism (and former CNN political analyst), has been trumpeting this call in his weekly op-ed pieces for the Indianapolis Star. In his latest article, Bode claims that Kerry views McCain as the surefire way of winning the election. This is the prevalent motif for the McCain theme, that having a respected Republican national security maven on the ticket will gain Kerry enough voters to ensure the election. The other motif that can be heard, more subtle in nature, is that Democrats are not knowledgeable or trustworthy about the military and national defense. This is why Clinton "needed" Cohen for his Secretary of Defense, and why McCain has a "better" reputation for defense than Kerry, even though both are veterans and members of appropriate Senate committees (Armed Forces for McCain, Foreign Relations for Kerry).

Atrios has called for an end to the McCain speculation, on grounds that it would sabotage the party's platform. I agree, that having McCain on the ticket would discourage more Democrats/liberals from voting than it would gain from Republicans and swing voters. McCain would not be willing to stump for House and Senate Democrat candidates, and any interview with him would be highlighting the differences between Republicans and Democrats, rather than talks of bipartisanship.

Here in Indiana, the other talk has been of Evan Bayh, though the local pundits don't think he will end up as the nominee for VP. A negative is that Bayh is running for re-election, and we saw how well that went over in 2000 with Liebermann. All I want is someone who is a good campaigner, trustworthy to take over the presidency if necessary, and who doesn't have excess political baggage. There seem to be many possibilities, gone over in Pandagon and other places. I'd rather not think geographically or demographically, but rather about qualifications in leadership. Nail the leadership issue, that is the climax.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Composer's intentions

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram reviews the English National Opera's new production of The Valkyrie. Chris describes many changes the ENO production made to Wagner's original stage directions, including the insertion of new characters and starting the opera with Wotan and Brunnhilde accompanied by a scream rather than Siegmund collapsing in Hunding's house.

Changing stage directions, costumes, and set designs are very commonplace in the world of opera. Productions are expensive, so directors feel something new must be done to draw crowds. In addition, the artistic mentality of the director demands a personal touch to the production, something that clearly signifies what the director has brought to the production.

In instances where the composer has made very clear indications for the performance, these changes brings up an interesting philosophical dilemma . Wagner made explicit stage directions, as part of his philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk. What obligations do performers have to adhere to the composer's intentions, communicated through the score or in other formats? With the changes that ENO made to Die Walküre, is it fair to still call it an opera by Wagner? What if music is cut out (a common occurrence in musical theater), or added (much more rare)?

Beyond the fairness of attribution, I am interested in the artistic obligations of the performer. Is there such a thing as an inauthentic performance of a musical work? If a performer decides to ignore some directions of the composer, the result will not be the same as the imagined sound the composer heard when writing the score. Given human limitations, it is highly unlikely that any performance will be exactly the same as the composer's imagination, but reasonable facsimiles are certainly expected if the performer attempts to follow all directions. If the directions are very specific, performances converge on an invariant performance practice. In these cases, what new thing can the performer bring to each iteration of the piece? If there is nothing new, why should there be additional performances?

These are not simple questions, and I do not have ready answers for them. It seems reasonable to expect performances of a piece to mutate over time, with changes in instrument design, improvements in technique, and different views of the musical language of the piece in the context of the current social framework. Something must stay the same, to say that it is the same piece, but that something can change with each work.

Back to Chris's review, Wagner's intentions were clearly being ignored in the ENO production, which made the experience less enjoyable to Chris. That makes this performance inauthentic.

Update: Chris tells me that the performance was in English, making it even more horrifying. Wagner wrote out most of his operas as narrative poems first. He would then compose the music to fit the poetry and the dramatic intents. I used to be very snobbish about translations of operas, until I experienced The Marriage of Figaro sung in English. The experience of getting the jokes as they were sung, rather than reading them, made the experience quite delightful. But in the case where poetry has been carefully written, with musical signs attached to specific words, translations are dicey at best. Also thanks to Chris, my horrific German/English hybrid-title has been corrected.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Student Compositions

Today was the last day of classes. In my first-year music theory classes I had the students compose a short passage and orchestrate for instruments or voices found in the class. The exact directions offered a possible starting point (the first measure of a Haydn String Quartet) and required the students to use at least one secondary dominant chord and to compose at least eight measures of music.

This is a farily normal activity in undergraduate music theory classes, useful for ingraining aspects of compositional theory and the performances help the students to make connections between the classroom and the practice room.

The students choose quite different ways to express themselves in these compositions. Some write far more than they are required: today two students composed multi-movement works, albeit the movements were somewhat short (16-24 measures). Other students think of witty titles, like "Toccata and Funk in A minor." Some decided to borrow from some famous piece, and others composed lyrics.

What struck me was how differently students regarded this assignment. Some viewed it as yet another dreary homework assignment, perhaps skipping it all together. Others regarded it as a learning experience, but nothing beyond that. But the majority used it as a venue for their creativity. Students who did not speak up in class, suddenly shouted in musical formats.

I am now trying to think of ways to incorporate the act of composition in other ways. Hans Keller advocated analyzing music by creating new music that highlights the analysis (the background unities in Keller's case). The delivered analysis would be a performance that mingled the piece being analyzed with music composed by the analyzer. This would be an interesting experiment to try with undergraduate students. Perhaps they would be more enthusiastic about this means of analysis than writing a paper.

Prelude to a blog

I have been reading political blogs, academic blogs, and book blogs for several years. This has inspired me to finally start my own blog on music, music theory, the psychology of music, academic life, and politics. I do not plan to become the next Atrios, or become a poster at Crooked Timber. I do hope to inspire serious discussions about music, elevating discourse beyond the favorite music lists that permeate the blogosphere. There may be links or discussions of a political nature, or something happening in my life that I feel the need to broadcast.

Now I need to think of something to write about!