Friday, January 27, 2006

Question Mozart Friday

Happy Mozart Day! In honor of this day, I shall answer a Mozart question this week. This one is from Minnesota Public Radio, which is having a Mozart trivia question every day. Get this one early enough and you might win a trip to Salzburg! (I already entered.)

What movie director made a film version of The Magic Flute in 1975?

Answer: Ingmar Bergman. I saw this one (sung in Swedish!) during my music history class as an undergrad. Bergman kept showing close-ups of his daughter in the audience during the overture, and broke down the fourth wall by showing Sarastro smoking back stage while playing cards with a stage hand.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mind and Body

I've gotten over a hump with my cornetto playing. My body is becoming more comfortable with the positions required, so I don't have to fight it as much. Therefore I can practice longer, both in terms of sets between breaks and the whole daily regimen. It has become addicting, much like my trumpet practice or piano practice. I don't want to stop, looking for one more exercise even though my hands and mouth ache.

I've also been running regularly, though I am still very much a beginner at this. Anbruch had been logging his weekly miles, and Waterfall has a practice log up. I'll combine the two: I'm running about 30 minutes three times a week, at about 2.5 miles each run*; I practice the cornetto one hour every day, while my wife walks the dog.

Now the mind part: I've had to clean out the comments in my class blogs, as I discovered while checking one of them for use this next semester. And yesterday I got my first spam comment as well, surprising as I have word verification turned on. At least most of the spam at the class blog was actually for music sites, mostly cello, clarinet and banjo (I won't reward them with a link). I've now turned on word verification and comment moderating for those blogs, something I think is especially necessary for those blogs that lie dormant for long times. The deletion process was quite mind-numbing, even more than preparing library reserve lists.

*Even when running outside I base my runs on time rather than distance, with the goal of running a little further each day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

FridayTuesday question

I got sucked into two books last week, followed by a trip to the in-laws for our third Christmas celebration of the season ("On the twenty-eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a garbage bag full of used bows"). Thus I already am behind on my new series. So I'll try to catch up today. Related to last week's question, I had two visitors wondering about mediant relationships, one specifically about chromatic mediant chord progressions.

The mediant relationship describes two chords or two keys that have roots or tonics a third apart. The interval of a third divides the perfect fifth in half, thus it is the middle or mediant. Plus, way back in the Renaissance when theorists like Zarlino were first conceiving of the idea of chords, one way of generating a triad was by finding the harmonic or arithmetic mean of the root and fifth. One gives the major triad, the other the minor triad (I can't remember which is which right now, any pointers would be helpful). So the interval of the third was considered the middle of the fifth, thus the mediant.

Mediant relationships are special, because the two chords or tonalities share many notes in common. As an example, the two chords that have the diatonic mediant relationship with C major are E minor and A minor. Each of these chords have two notes in common with C (E and G, C and E respectively). While sharing these notes, the two chords or tonalities do not form the typical tonic-dominant relationship, so there is something slightly exotic about them.

Chromatic mediant relationships are even more exotic. E minor and A minor both fit in the key of C major, thus they are diatonic relationships. Chromatic mediant relationships do not share as many notes in common, and in fact could not be within the same key. The full definition of the chromatic mediant relationship is two chords or keys with the following characteristics: 1) the roots or tonics are a third apart, and 2) the chords or tonalities share the same mode (major or minor). There are four tonalities that are chromatical mediants of C major: Ab major, A major, Eb major, and E major. Each of these tonic triads only share one note with C major, though the other notes are very close. Because these tonic chords do share one note in common, smooth transitions can be made between these very foreign keys. Beethoven often enjoyed using common-tone modulations to move from one key to the next, such as in the third movement of his seventh symphony. Here, the two major themes are in F major and D major respectively, with A as the common tone. Within the first theme the key modulates from F to A and back, another chromatic mediant relationship.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Yesterday I went to a Martin Luther King program sponsored by the Putnam County Library. My daughter played in a group of violinists at the beginning and ending of the program, which also included a sing-a-long led by Reverend Marvin Chandler. But the highlight was a multimedia presentation of a sermon Martin Luther King gave at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church back in 1960. He imagined what the Apostle Paul would write in an epistle to Americans in 1960. MLK felt that moral progress had not kept up with scientific progress. Forty-five years later, we haven't improved much. Poverty still exists in the richest country in the world. 56 million Americans did not have health coverage in 2004. And people are still being discriminated against because of their skin color, sexual orientation, and other factors.

There was a beautiful line in that sermon, which I have to paraphrase because I can't find it on the internet: We have to be less concerned with making a good living, and more concerned with making a good life.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

On Learning a New Instrument

Getting my new cornetto has reinvigorated my practice routine, which was dormant for the last year or so. I've always been attracted to new things: a new trumpet, a new piece to play, a new group to play in, etc. So it has been great to have a very new thing to spark my performing interest again.

The frustrating thing is, I'm starting back at almost square one with this thing. While the chops, air, and tonguing are all analogous to the trumpet, the fingering and even the holding of the instrument are incredibly foreign. No valves to slam down, so I have to retrain my fingers to be more efficient and accurate in finding the holes. Six fingers and a thumb to use, as opposed to three fingers (and two slides). I was worried that my left hand would be the anchor holding me back, but it is the right hand that is causing me the most trouble. As the left hand has to be able to completely release the instrument to uncover the three fingers and thumb hole, the right hand has to take all the weight. But the right hand also has to be able to wiggle the first three fingers freely, so the weight is taken by the thumb, pinky, and the knuckle of the index finger. And the holes of the right hand are spread rather far apart, so the hand position is somewhat awkward. I find that my pinky gets incredibly tense, and I have difficulty keeping my ring finger in position.

Thus, I'm working on very basic scales and melodic patterns. And it isn't just my hands that need to relearn, but my brain as well. I think in trumpet fingerings, to the extent that I will subconsciously finger melodies that I'm only vaguely thinking about. I can play very fast passages in any key, and don't bother with basic scales and patterns anymore unless I'm working on a new sound. I just hope I get to the fun music before the novelty of the cornetto wears off.

One novel thing about the cornetto – something it shares with other 17th century instruments – is the interesting changes in timbre with different notes. Our 21st century ears are used to a basic consistency in timbre within an instrument, across dynamics, pitches, and registers. But Renaissance and Baroque performance practice did not emphasize this consistency. They used tuning schemes that make tonal key areas sound very different. The fortepiano sounds drastically different in the different registers, unlike the modern pianoforte. The natural horn has a very different sound with stopped notes, a requirement to play any interesting melodic passages. The cornetto has a change of timbre whenever cross fingerings are required. I'm not used to these changes, and it has made me think about the whole aesthetics of timbre from a different perspective.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Friday Question

I'm trying a new weekly feature, answering interesting questions that show up in my referrals.

Today's question: What is a ditone chord? This question led to my post on the Giant Steps analysis by Haughton and Flanagan. A ditone can be generally defined as a major third (two whole steps), or more specifically as the Pythagorean tuning for a major third, the ratio 64:81, as opposed to the just tempered tuning of 4:5. But this is an interval, not a chord. The term "ditone chord" is used in gospel music to describe a chord based on the third scale degree. In the key of C major, some kind of E major chord is the ditone chord. In classical music theory, this would be described as a III chord or a chromatic mediant chord. But in gospel this is treated as a variant of the tritone substitution, as a way of adding chromatic tension to the tonic chord. Tritone substitutions are used by jazzers to liven up a ii-V-I progression with a chromatically descending bass line and extra implied extensions and alterations to the original V chord (it is essentially a V#11 b9 with the #11 in the bass). I imagine the ditone chord is used in a similar way in gospel, but I'm not so familiar with that genre.

A new trend in blogging?

Three of the science blogs I read – Pharyngula, Uncertain Principles and Cognitive Daily – have moved to a new blog host. This itself isn't so unusual, as bloggers often tinker with new programs or webhosting services. What is different about these two bloggers is that the new host is paying them to blog about science. Scienceblogs is a new aggregate site of eleven science blogs. Keeping with the trend started by Kevin Drum when he started blogging professionally for Washington Monthly, PZ Meyers and Chad Orzel are continuing to write about "non-professional" things such as pop music and local politics. Dave Munger has always maintained a tight focus on cognitive science and psychology, though he and his wife always bring wonderful personal touches to the science posts. Chad assures us that the only real difference is that his blog will now have advertising. Unfortunately, the various arts "blogazines", such as Sequenza21 and ArtsJournal, do not pay their bloggers. Such is the life of the starving artist.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How to Listen to Music

Right now I'm writing a review of Eric Clarke's Ways of Listening, which has me thinking about how I listen to music. This was very apparent to me while I was listening to a recital this evening. We are interviewing candidates for a viola position, which naturally include recitals. My duty at these recitals is to judge the artistic quality of the candidates, not to sit back and attend to the aesthetics of the compositions or get emotionally moved. I'm also not precluded from these latter modes of listening, but it is very difficult to get emotionally invested while continuously asking, "is it good enough?" I was reflecting on this at the recital, when I realized that I often listen in a judgmental way, at least at the beginning of a performance. Just like in a human relationship, I hold off from a full emotional commitment until I have deemed the performance worthy. And even when I do make that commitment, a part of me is still cataloging the technical mistakes and triumphs of the performer and composer.

Is this the curse of the professional musician, or is it normal behavior for everyone?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Ghosts of Christmas Hogwarts

I'm sitting here listening to the Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone soundtrack, when "Christmas at Hogwarts" comes up. I've seen the movie several times, but I do not recall the ghostly voices in the Christmas scenes. They are saying (at about 0:23 in),
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, ring the Hogwarts bell
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, cast a Christmas spell
Have a wondrous wizard Christmas, have a merry Christmas Day,
Huddle around the sparkling fire, have a merry Christmas Day.
Find a broomstick in your stockings, see the magic on display
Join the owls joyous flocking on this merry Christmas Day.
Ding dong, ding dong, ring the Hogwarts bell
Ding dong, ding dong, cast a Christmas spell
Ding dong, ding dong, make the Christmas morning bright
Fly high across the sky in the Christmas night

Does anyone recall this Christmas carol in the movie? I'll check later, but why do research when you can get others to?

Update: Here is someone else's transcription of the lyrics, slightly different than mine.

Friday, January 06, 2006

With my last breath, I spit at thee

A new trend in operas? I already hear ACD's "Nooo" resounding, but that must be a tribute to Shatner's famous line.

(This isn't that farfetched. My brother threatened to take me to this when I was in Boston in November.)

Tin Ears

I'm back from Florida, well rested and ready for the new year. I still need to finish unpacking in our new house, a new course to design and two courses to rejigger, a symposium to organize, and a book review to write. But for now, here's a test designed to determine your sense of pitch. It is sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of the NIH. There are 26 fragments from very familiar tunes (Christmas carols, national anthems, children's songs, etc.) that may or may not have been played correctly. Your job is to say whether the tune was distorted or not. The only distortions in this test are changes in pitch, no rhythm or intonation errors. The chief investigator, Dennis Drayna, states that this test has shown 5% of the population to have tin ears. In addition, this deficiency is inheritable, as shown by studying over 250 pairs of twins.

Now the members of the bløgösphère can prove their chops, by revealing their scores. I got a perfect score, 26 out of 26 correctly identified. If you do poorly, at least you are qualified to take part in the NIH study. The answers are found here, but no cheating!

(via Mindhacks)