Monday, January 31, 2005

The first day of class

I'm back into teaching mode today, with the start of the spring semester. I'm teaching two sections of Form and Analysis, two sections of Advanced Musicianship, and Psychology of Music. This is the first time I will be teaching a course on my specialty, which I'm very excited about. It will be mostly music majors or minors, with one psychology major and a few College of Liberal Arts students that I don't think are music minors. In the future I hope to get more psychology majors, but I think for a first outing it will be good to have a fairly homogenous class in terms of musical experience.

I'm trying a new book for Form and Analysis, A Practical Approach to the Study of Form in Music by Peter Spencer and Peter Temko. I like the approach of structural functions and phenomena that this book takes, and the exercises are flexible. Well, time to go to my first lunch meeting of the semester, oh frabjous joy!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

O Magnum Mysterium

In more cheery news, listen to some fabulous music. Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium is something I first encountered at a reunion concert as an arrangement for wind ensemble. I discovered a great recording of the original choral version in the school library. Conducted by the great Robert Shaw, his Festival Singers and Chamber Singers perform several Magnum Mysteriae by Lauridsen, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Francis Poulenc. They also have a great performance of Totus Tuus by Gorecki. But the Lauridsen is something that just washes over me, melting away all tensions and leaving a great sense of peace and love. It is not saccharine, with plenty of well-placed dissonances. I don't know the theology behind this type of chant, and I don't think it matters. The vocal and instrumental versions affect me equally, so it isn't the words that are meaningful. It is the gorgeous melodic lines, changing from simple steps to gentle leaps; it is the phrases that keep getting extended into infinity; it is the music, the music, the music.

Wait, that death doesn't count

The train derailment in California was a horrible tragedy. Apparently the government is considering making it worse. Here we have a guy that (selfishly) tried to commit suicide by train. He apparently was not able to go through with that attempt, and has been charged with murder for causing the deaths of others. So far I'm okay with this. The man probably should be in an insane asylum, given the train attempt and new attempts to slash his wrists and stab himself in the chest. Where this becomes bizarre is that the government has this man under a suicide watch while they decide whether to kill him.

I'll make it clear: I oppose the death penalty. A society that sanctions killing loses some of its humanity. The punishment is not a detriment according to studies I've seen. Financial costs are greater for death penalties than for life imprisonment. The protection of society is no different from death or imprisonment. So all we have is the desire for vengeance, the need to satisfy bloodlusts. And so killing is made acceptable as a means of solving problems, not a good lesson for any society.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A new list-ening idea

Everyone around the blogosphere and the bløgösphère have been listing the next 10 songs from shuffle mode on iTunes or whatever other software there is. Usually this is accompanied by an ironic statement that the list doesn't really reflect the person's listening habits or personality, except when it does.

I have a new idea, a list that should more accurately reflect a person's taste in music. Click on the Top 25 Most Played playlist for iTunes, and list the top ten or so. Mine is:
1."Doin' What I Please" - Don Redman and his Orchestra
2."Into the West" Lord of the Rings - Return of the King soundtrack
3.Bartók's Improvistations sur les chants paysans hongrois, op. 20 - 1 Molto moderato - Claude Helffer
4.Schumann's "Prophetic Bird" from Waldszenen - Claudio Arrau
5.Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata, op. 31/2, 2. Adagio - Glenn Gould
6."Anduril" Lord of the Rings - Return of the King soundtrack
7.Britten's Simple Symphony (arr. Colin Matthews/Simon Wright), I. Boisterous Bouree - The Wallace Collection
8.Shostakovich's Three Fantastic Dances, 1. March: Allegro - Martin Jones
9.Johann Christian Fischer's Concerto in C major, 2. Adagio - Maurice André
10.Giralamo Fantini's Saltarello detto del Naldi - The Parley of Instruments

Tied with Fantini is some Wagner (selections from Tannhauser and Die Meistersinger), Webern's "Wie bin ich froh!", and John Tavener's "The Lamb."

I only started to rip mp3's of my CDs over Thanksgiving, and I've only done about 1/3 of my collection. So symphonies and vocal music are more scarce than my normal habits would suggest. But overall, the Top 25 list (or just listing your library by the number of listenings) gets around the randomness of shuffle mode to show which tracks you found worthy enough to go back to. Unless you only listen in shuffle mode with no weighting for ratings, in which case it doesn't matter much.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Monday, January 24, 2005

Leipzig in Spring

I'm quite excited. I was just informed that I will be presenting a poster session at The Neurosciences and Music - II conference in May. This means that DePauw will fund my trip, I will be able to attend some great workshops and hear important papers in my field, and be in Leipzig during the Bach Festival!

My posters will present my findings on "The effects of career path and music education on trumpet articulation categorization." While the title may suggest a snoozer or incredibly obscure research, the results were rather surprising and do have implications on music education. But I will blog more about that closer to the conference dates. For now, I need to decide which concerts to go to. The theme of the Festival is Bach and the Future [not Bach to the Future?] so many concerts feature some contemporary works as well as Baroque and style galant music. Oh, I hope the dollar/euro ratio improves in the next couple of months!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The week in music at Crooked Timber

Crooked Timber has two posts on music of quite different genres.

First, Chris Bertram tells us about an animated version of Wagner's Ring cycle provided by the Goethe Institute. It is done in both German and English, with versions for the 7-11 year-olds and the older children. Besides the animated comic book, there is information about the operas for both the kids and for teachers. One of the commenters at Crooked Timber complains that the site doesn't talk about leitmotifs, but I'm not sure that is necessary for children.

Second, Ted Barlow offers a game. If you are in charge of a satellite radio station, what music would you program? They should be popular songs, but not to be found on regular terrestrial station rotations. Paging John Scalzi and Chad Orzel.

Play but don't tell

My brother sent me an article from WBUR, Boston's NPR station, about Queer studies in musicology. Entitled Play but don't tell, this article by Mark Kroll highlights the history of academic enquiry into composer sexuality, starting with a session at the American Musicological Society in 1990. Mr. Kroll makes it sound like the battles are still being fought on this subject, but it really isn't so. In both musicology and music theory, there are those who do research on the effect of gender and sexuality on composition and performance, and there are those who don't. It is the rare person to criticize someone in the other "camp" for their research beliefs, other than Pieter van den Toorn. And Van den Toorn's book was considered out-of-date when it was published, as it addressed 1990 gender studies rather than 1996 gender studies, in a rapidly changing field.

As for my own opinion, here is what I wrote to my brother:
While media coverage of things like this tend to oversimplify for the sake of sensationalism, this one does make a good point that composers write a variety of pieces, each of which may or may not contain elements of the composer's sexuality.  I think some of Tchaikovsky's pieces have a tumultuous quality because of his struggles with his sexuality (he married a female student who ended up committing suicide).  I think Benjamin Britten gravitated towards operas about the other, because of his "love that dare not speak its name."  But then, Britten also wrote the War Requiem to portray his pacifist beliefs, nothing to do with homosexuality.  

Terry Teachout recently addressed the question of his sexuality, pointing out that it only mattered to those who were interested in him romantically. In other words, the CJ Craig line. I agree with this, when limited to the form of interactions with the person. But when looking at artistic endevours by someone, biographical information can be illuminating. A former professor of mine determined that Elgar had deliberately quote Wagner's Prize Song in his Second Symphony as a love letter to Mrs. Stuart-Wortley, proved by more traditional love letters he had written to her at the same time. (Gimbel, Allen. "Elgar's Prize Song: Quotation and Allusion in the Second Symphony." 19th-Century Music 12 (Spring 1989): 231-40.) Being aware of the extramusical influences of this quotation provides many interpretation possibilites for the performers. Likewise it could be helpful to know that Schubert was gay, in interpreting some of his songs.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The new music business model?

Tuesday I received an email announcing that Verne Q. Powell Flutes, 'a maker of hand-crafted instruments that have made the “Powell Sound” the gold standard for flutes worldwide,' is opening an online music distribution service for flutists. The Recording Studio allows performers and composers to promote their works to a specialized audience of flute lovers. Downloads are handled like iTunes, at $1 a pop. Artists get free home pages and are paid royalties for their work. Is this the way of the future? Specialization and purely electronic music formats just don't help me when I want to browse. Where is the window-shopping, bookshelf browsing, and food sampling in the new world order?

Jazz, meet computers. Computers, jazz.

David Wessel, whom I was fortunate to meet at ICMPC 8, is not just another mathematician/psychologist/percussionist. He is also a master performer on the Macintosh G4 laptop. Okay, he is really performing on Thunder, "a pad that looks like the control panel of an alien computer on Star Trek." Yet that pad controls a TiBook to produce sounds on eight Meyer Sound Lab speakers. So he is really playing a nonkeyboard version of a synthesizer

But what I really like about this article is that it mentions Pierre Boulez, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, alongside oscillators and the Institute de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). It should really have mentioned CNMAT, the Center for New Music and AudioTechnologies that David Wessel directs. Then it would have married all of my favorite subjects in one little 700 word article.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

New Music reviews

Tim Rutherford-Johnson has two great posts about new music. First, a review of the Elysian String Quartet performing in the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year series. After a prelude on the art of criticism and the role of the performer in deciding what concerts to go to, Tim very eloquently describes his interactions with three new works by Aurelio Tello, Dai Fujikura, and Stephen Montague. I want to highlight one claim Tim makes, as it is quite interesting:
One by one the three upper parts of the quartet (the cello, necessarily, remains seated) rise and turn their backs to the audience and each other. At first this looks like a cheap gesture, a gimmick for the end of the work. Each player only has two remember a couple of notes after all, and none of them need to see each other at this stage; if it's too easy, it's not theatre.

Theatrical effects have to be perceived as difficult, otherwise they are merely cheap gimmicks. Harry Houdini, the famous magician/escape artist, certainly knew that he had to make the escapes look hard to get the audience excited. When he was starting out, he would get out of handcuffs and straightjackets in seconds, showing how easy it was for him. The audiences booed, figuring it was just a cheap trick if he could do it so easily. I think Tim is applying this rule to theatrical effects. If the effect is too easy, the audience won't really notice it or figure out what the purpose is. But when it is obviously difficult, as when the quartet restarts in sync while blind to each other, the audience gasps at the impossibility, opening them up for other insights and inspirations. I had never thought about stage effects that way before, it is quite interesting.

Tim's other post is from his series on Music Since 1960. The most recent entry is on Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel. Tim intersperses diary-like real-time observations with interpretations of how the effects were made or why the effects are so magical or meaningful. The diary observations are magical themselves, drawing the reader into Tim's world of Feldman music: A great swell from choir and timpani. At its climax is an impassioned viola flourish, augmented by tubular bells. A sound of grief, of pain. And again. Was that really pain, then? Can I believe what I felt when I heard it?

I am not familiar with this particular piece. It has inspired me to check the university library, to make sure that we have recordings of all the pieces on Tim's list and on Steve Hicken's list. This is both for my benefit and for the benefit of my students. Tim and Steve have each provided a great resource for the discussion of 20th century music, and I would be remiss if I didn't utilize them.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

DePauw in New York

I want to encourage anyone in the New York area to see the premiere of a composition by my friend and colleague, Carlos Carrillo. Algunas metáforas que aluden al tormento, a la angustia y a la Guerra, a work for percussion quartet and chamber orchestra, will be performed on January 21 at 7:30 in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. The performers are So Percussion with the American Composers Orchestra. Adding to the evidence that the musical world is only 4x4, one of the members of So Percussion was a classmate of mine at Eastman. I even desk-published his composition for his degree recital (a real pain, all these special symbols for various percussive techniques).

As you can tell from the title, Carlos is rather political and also likes to draw from his Puerto Rican roots. As he finished this composition this fall while at DePauw, you can hear what midwestern life has done to him. I haven't heard this particular work yet, but I've really enjoyed every piece by Carlos that I have heard. Just ask him to speak slowly if you converse with him afterwards.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Journal Club: Tonal Systems in Rock music

The latest issue of MTO is out, so I thought I'd point out an article that may be of interest to a wide audience, Walter Everett's Making Sense of Rock's Tonal Systems. Everett uses Schenkerian analysis as his basis for categorizing and describing various types of rock music. However, one does not need to be versed in Schenker's theories to understand and discuss some of Everett's points. First is the idea that rock music can be described as tonal (the strong majority, at least), but in six different flavors, as listed on Table One. The first type is the standard tonality as practiced by composers from the 18th and 19th centuries, and quite prevalent in 20th century popular music. These use major or minor mode systems with typical harmonic progressions and voice-leading behavior (partwriting rules, for those who have taken any music theory). The second type uses typical major or minor modes and typical voice-leading, but nontypical chord progressions. Each subsequent type gets farther away from the standard view of tonality, until we get to the speed-metal systems of Type 6b, with tonality only perceived through assertion (the only chord played, or the chord played the longest) rather than by any relationship to other chords or voice-leading phenomena. Is this a good set of categories? I am uncertain about Type 3a, as modal mixture is a common feature in common practice tonality, so it should be covered by Type 1. Those quite familiar with rock music can also critique the placement of songs into these categories. I don't know any Beck tunes or many other pieces mentioned, so I am unqualified in this regard.

The other thing that can be appreciated is how Everett uses a single view of tonality, Schenkerian theory, to show how specific rock songs deviate from this standard, giving each one its unique appearance. I would have liked to seen more of this, rather than the comparison of pieces from 1957-58 and 1999-2000 that make up Part II of the paper. The scoring system Everett uses in Part II is not described adequately, so the results are highly questionable. And even if we accept the results as accurate, Everett does not provide any meaningful conclusions, beyond the obvious fact that the more contemporary period is more diverse in tonal systems.

Don't be turned off by the Schenkerian graphs in the figures. If you have an interest in rock music from anytime between 1950 and 2003, you will find something to appreciate in this article.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


I am nerdier than 83% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

I'm actually surprised at how high I scored on this. Not as high as PZ Meyers or many of his commenters, but I figured my lack of updatedness on computer stuff would hold me back. I agree with one of Paul's commenters, Michelle, that the test has a very narrow definition of nerdiness. Afterall, I've shown how nerdy one can be about music.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Culture and psychology

Yesterday on the BBC news hour, I heard a story about the tsunami disaster. It described an island of fishers who were now afraid to go back to sea, and their children who were afraid to go to school because it is near the water. I understand that the recent tsunami was much worse than any other natural phenomenon in recent history, but I'm surprised that these people's cultures don't include some teaching of the sea as both peaceful and violent, to prepare them for disasters. Mythology usually depicts sea gods and goddesses as capricious, often malicious. Poseidon made Ulysees wander the seas for years, and tried to flood Athens when its king chose Athena over Poseidon as patron. The Celtic sea gods, the Fomorii, were depicted as extremely violent. Even the Judeo-Christian God sent floods to kill everyone. Various cultures describe hidden horrors in the sea, from monsters to whirlpools, furious storms and the Bermuda triangle. It seems that all peoples that lived near the sea knew that it could be treacherous.

I wonder if the homogeneity of cultures that has come about with the information age has killed the ability of cultural legends to prepare various peoples for tragedies that can befall them. Or perhaps it was the evangelism of Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity that destroyed these psychological ballistrades. These major religions were born in desert lands or the jungle, so they do not have a major focus on the treachery of the sea. Whatever the reason, I think the psychological impact of the tsunami shows the need for disparate local cultures, and the dangers of spreading belief systems beyond their birth places.

Monday, January 10, 2005

New blog

I've been made aware of a new blog, called Composers Forum at, the Contemporary Classical Music Portal. Jerry Bowles is the editor, with contributions by composers Beth Anderson, Larry Bell, Cary Boyce, Lawrence Dillon, Steven R. Gerber, Sean Hickey, Benjamin Lees, and Daniel Schnyder. There are posts on Writing for Children's Chorus (challenging Fred Himebaugh's preeminence as the choral blogger), and on writing about music. It just started at the start of the new year, but looks to be quite interesting. And they link to me!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Identity of a Song

Two days ago I heard a story on NPR about the rock group Nickelback. A music student in Alberta (I've been told they have a pretty good music program there) superimposed two songs by the group in an effort to show that they are really the same song. You can listen to his efforts here. What really struck me was the claim that these songs were exactly the same. The melodies are distinctly different, though the harmonies are the same and the changes in timbre line up. This student has really created a quodlibet, two different melodies that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It is interesting that this student focuses solely on the harmonic progression for the identity of the song. It reminds me of a story that Kyle Gann shared, on how his students judged his piece by the unchanging (vertical time) aspects rather than the dynamic qualities (horizontal time). Nickelback has created two songs (three, according to the claims of the listener) that share some vertical time aspects and some horizontal time aspects, but do not share all of them. Yet they are apparently identical. Who knew?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Recursive writing

As I started writing up a proposal on blogging in the music theory classroom, the topic altered underneath my words. The focus was no longer on the technical benefits of blogging, but on the reasons to encourage writing about music in the first place. In other words, my critical writing led me to a thesis about critical writing. I believe the title will be "Critical Writing in the Music Theory Classroom: Blogs and Listening Journals," since any good title has to have a colon. Plus the inclusion of "blogs" in the title makes the paper hip and trendy.

In other news, I see that ACD has called for an end to the debate about theater. I didn't really see a debate in the first place, since ACD refused to respond to any points made by others. He claims they ignored his question ("Why should live theater survive as an art form today when film seems better able to do a play justice?") while claiming that any discussion of the relative merits of film and stage are not relevant answers. He falls back on his tried-n-true argument of the "artwork itself," seemingly ignoring the possibility that the realization of a given artwork can define a distinct art form. So why should live theater survive? Because it provides a form of realization that film does not, as George Hunka ably shows. The artwork itself is not just a script, but the way it is realized by the actors, directors, and the technologies of stage or screen. Art forms that are dynamic – drama, music, dance – are inherently collaborative efforts. Someone decides what should be done: the author, composer, or choreographer. Someone else does the actual art: the actor, musician, or dancer. If many performers are involved, another layer of collaboration is added with the director and/or conductor. The two or three sets of artists work together, even across centuries, to produce a given artwork. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is a lovely abstract concept, but the actual artwork is a collaboration between Beethoven and the London Symphony with Pierre Monteux, or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Daniel Berenboim, each a separate artwork to be evaluated on its own terms. It can also be a collaboration between Beethoven and myself, as I read through the score and perform the symphony in my head. Beethoven makes suggestions on pitches, rhythms, and timbres, but I decide how fast to replay it, what actual frequencies to imagine, and what the strings and timpani should sound like. As any good theory goes, this one has exceptions that prove the rule. A free improviser is sole creator of a work, deciding and realizing all in one go. A playwright can perform his/her own monologue, though I still would argue that this is a collaboration between different aspects of that person's creative persona.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Class blogging

I'm working on a paper on classroom blogging. I'm illustrating the improved feedback from comments, the higher level of effort the students put into public writings, and the opportunities to create multimedia presentations. I'd appreciate any comments on perceived negatives to class blogs, so I can address them in my paper. Any pointers to other research on blogging in teaching environments would be welcomed as well.

Happy New Year!

I’m back from the grand sweep of Wisconsin and Michigan, and ready for a whole month of nothing but writing and class preparation. I saw several movies over the holidays, which I will briefly comment on.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, special extended version – I hated the extra scene, “The Voice of Saruman”. I will not spoil the results for anyone, but it just didn’t fit with the rest of the movie or the rest of the trilogy. The Mouth of Sauron was cool, and I liked the bigger focus on the romance of Faramir and Eowyn. The other extra scenes were fine, though I’m not sure about the changes to “The Paths of the Dead.”

The Incredibles – this was well done, though I found that it didn’t stick with me after the viewing. I often replay scenes in my head, but nothing really came to mind, even during the nine-hour drive from Wisconsin to Michigan. I’m definitely glad we didn’t take the kids to see this movie. The casual way that heroes and villains died is not something I want to expose the wee ones to yet. I thought the portrayal of the five members of the family was very realistic, especially the way the kids panicked at the first signs of trouble.

Kinsey – our New Year’s Eve date movie, this had a special connection given Kinsey’s position at Indiana University. This was a very good movie, well written and well acted. The movie was not a hagiography of Alfred Kinsey, nor was it a scandal-monger. It showed how his relationship with his father affected his relationship with his own son without dwelling on it, and showed how open marriages can have adverse affects without being preachy. The last two scenes are very touching, including a great showing by Lynne Redgrave.

Annie Hall

– I watched most of this on PBS late at night on Jan. 1. The last time I saw this movie I was only 10 or 12, and didn’t understand most of it. This time I got it, though I’m still not a huge fan of Woody Allen’s humor. I had completely forgotten that Christopher Walken and Harold Ramis were in this movie, though they both did as well as any other character. I would not call this an acting movie, it is more focused on concepts and quick jokes than on actual emotion.

Spider-Man 2 – I found the second DVD extra features much more interesting than those that were included in the first movie. I found I was still annoyed by something that struck me when I saw this in the theatre: comic books and comic book movies always refer to "Science" rather than to Physics, Chemistry, or Biology. Dr. Octavius, in describing how he and his wife met, says that she was studying English Literature and he was studying Science. Come on, the man is clearly a physicist, he is creating a fusion reaction. Of course, the cybernetic arms show a mastery of biology and mechanical engineering as well, so maybe he was a wunderkind studying all forms of science at once. But then he should mention all of them, or acknowledge his special training in some way.