Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preparing for Advent

Chad Orzel is taking a poll of the most annoying Xmas tunes. To make up for it, he provides a link to a very amusing skit by Patton Oswald (warning, NSFW unless your workplace doesn't mind swearing and you wasting your work hours on humor).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Temperamental Piano

Via Jonathan Bellman, here is a video on a new design of piano that allows the performer to adjust the tuning of each string with the use of sliders. Jonathan talks about the ability to change temperaments for his beloved Chopin. I can see possibilities in performing works by Gann, Young, and others who experiment with new scales. Or microtonal compositions. Or perhaps adding vibrato to a piano sound. I have some problems with the timbre of the piano itself, it sounds very tinny to me. It could be from the quality of the video, or the addition of the horizontal harp to the piano (see 2:20 of the video) which could vibrate sympathetically to strengthen the upper partials of the sounds. I'd like to hear the sliding system on a standard-sounding piano, one that doesn't attempt to sound like an Indian instrument. Here are some views about the hammer design that may have created this different sound.

The Fluid Piano will get its debut on Saturday at the University of Surrey, featuring composer/pianists Matthew Bourne, Nikki Yeoh and Pam Chowhan, and works by the inventor, Geoff Smith.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Fool and his Groundbass

Elaine Fine has found an interesting website all about La Folia, including the chronological and geographical progression and as many quotes in music throughout the ages as the authors could find. There isn't much on the structural elements of the groundbass, definitely more music history than music theory.

Sing We Our Praise of Idolatry

Today while I was running in the park, I listened to a PRI's The World story about a popular Indian song, "Vande Mataram," and recent Muslim opposition to it. Some clerics have issued a fatwah against singing the song, as the first line is about bowing down to the motherland. This is interpreted as idolatry by some (but not all) Muslims, particularly since "Motherland" is considered a goddess by Hindus. Disregarding the theological arguments for a second, I think it is healthy for any patriotic movement within a country to have a vocal opposition. If all Indians fell lockstep into beatifying their country, that could lead down the slippery slope to regarding other countries as inferior, and thus ready for conquest. Descriptions of the song reminded of other jingo-esque jingles, including some of the songs I sang (the videos are not of me, just a representative of the songs) as a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. A friend who was not in the fraternity pointed out to me that most of the songs were basically saying "look how awesome we are, we are the greatest group of guys around." Which implies that anyone who is not a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia is not awesome. These kind of songs are great morale boosters, but they also strengthen boundaries between "us" and "them". So it is good to prick those boundaries with opposing viewpoints from within the "us".

Friday, November 20, 2009

FriPod: Thanks

Some of my family have been posting what they are thankful for every day on Facebook. Since I don't want my students to know what I'm thankful for, I'll just put up some iTunes tracks that are thanksgiving-ish. I know, the first Parsifal example isn't really thankful, but it sets up the much more thankful excerpt that follows, and it gives me ten tracks.

1. "But Thanks Be to God" from Messiah by G.F. Handel, performed by Andrew Davis, The Toronto Symphony, The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

2. "Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben" [kneeling with thanks, kneeling with praise] from Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach, performed by Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Wiener Sängerknaben & Hans Gillesberger.

3. "Danksagung an den Bach" [Gratitude to the Brook] from Die schöne Müllerin by Franz Schubert, performed by Ian Bostridge.

4. "Ah! Mme. Follenvie, We Thank You" from The Greater Good by Stephen Hartke, performed by Andrew Wentzel, Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra & Stewart Robertson.

5. "Nun Danket Alle Gott" [Now Thank All God] by Sigfrid Karg-Elert, performed by the Empire Brass and Michael Murray.

6. "Nicht Dank! Haha! Was Wird Es Helfen?" [no thanks! haha! what will it help?] from Parsifal by Richard Wagner, performed by Dieter Selmbeck, Franz Crass, Gwyneth Jones, Heinz Zednik, Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele & Pierre Boulez.

7. "Recht So! Habt Dank! Ein Wenig Rast!" [right! thanks to you! rushing a little bit!] from Parsifal by Wagner, performed by Bengt Rundgren, Franz Crass, Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Pierre Boulez & Thomas Stewart.

8. "Thank Goodness" from Wicked by Stephen Schwartz, performed by Carole Shelley & Kristen Chenoweth.

9. "Thank you for the music" by Abba, from Number Ones.

10. "Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta" by Duke Ellington, performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Friday, November 13, 2009

FriPod: Last Composer Standing

Norman LeBrecht has posed a question: What 10 currently living composers will still be performed in 50 years? Rather than accepting his five "certainties," I'm starting fresh and will name ten composers in my iPod mix that I believe will stand the test of time.

1. Paul McCartney. His compositions with the Beatles and a few solo works will continue to thrive in 50 years.

2. Eric Whitacre. I actually prefer Morton Lauridsen's choir music, but I think Eric is more prolific, and thus casts a wider net. Speaking of which, his YouTube choir experiments are fascinating.

3. Osvaldo Golijov. His mix of world, popular, and classical musics are very organic, not forced or too topical that will confine them to a single time period (the problem with Michael Daugherty's work). I absolutely heart his "Last Round" and "Lullaby and Doina".

4. I was going to write down Sondheim here, but it is a harder call than Norman thinks. Most Broadway musicals reflect the popular idioms, and any revivals are done for nostalgia rather than because the music feels fresh. I can see revivals of Sondheim musicals, but I have a feeling that newer forms will dominate Broadway. Instead, I offer John Williams. Yes, he steals from other composers at times, but his music is both effective within the films, and survives on its own as well. Plus notice his being tagged for the inauguration piece this year.

5. John Adams. No question about it. He is represented in a variety of genres (piano, chamber, orchestral, opera), and has continued to evolve in his compositional style while maintaining a recognizable voice.

6. Phillip Glass. Ditto here, though his compositional style has not evolved as much as Adams'. But he has also done film music, and his Einstein on the Beach marks such a pivotal role in opera that it will continue. Steve Reich I am less certain about, and I'm sure that the only thing of Terry Riley's that will be performed in 50 years is "In C".

7. David Lang. The combination of the Bang On a Can juggernaut and winning the Pulitzer will keep David's music in the public conscious for 50 years. Particularly because there are strong feelings about his work in both directions, and hate can keep a work alive much more than indifference.

8. Thomas Adès, probably. It is wild and energetic stuff, musicians love to play it and audiences love to hear it.

9. Avo Pärt, because he best hits that balance of stasis and interest, moreso than Tavener or Gorecki.

10. Bob Dylan. Yes, I will never hear the end of it from my sister-in-law, but while Dylan himself is not an inspiring performer anymore, his music has clearly inspired countless musicians in a variety of genres. The poetry is haunting and complex, and usually coupled so tightly with the music that they cannot be easily separated.

What are your top 10 survivors? Suggest them here, and at Slipped Disc.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

And now for some politics...

Today's Indianapolis Star had a front-page article about a Purdue University professor who blogs on conservative issues. Bert Chapman is the Government Information & Political Science Librarian and a Professor of Library Science at Purdue. The reason he made the news is for writing a post called "An Economic Case Against Homosexuality." A grad student discovered the blog post and reported Chapman to the university's Office for Institutional Equality, leading to protests in the campus newspaper and onward to the local news.

I agree with the university's decision that Prof. Chapman did not violate any rules, and therefore should not be punished. He put up a required disclaimer stating that his views do not represent those of Purdue University, and thus far there is no evidence that his political and social views have corrupted his professional behavior. I do disagree with a few of the other conservative bloggers cited in the IndyStar article who criticize the students and professors at Purdue for protesting against Chapman's homophobic views. Jonathan Katz calls the protests "bullying and an attempt at censorship." From the perspectives of students at Purdue, the majority of the protests are not attempting to get Chapman fired, or even to get him to take down his blog post. Instead the protests were a means of disputing the facts put forth by Chapman, thus continuing the debate. Sadly, many people who say controversial things get upset when other people have the temerity to disagree loudly and publicly. It would be bullying if Professor Chapman had expressed his opinions at a small dinner party, and found his remarks being protested in the newspapers and on campus afterward. But he made his viewpoints quite public through a popular conservative site (, so any response that attempts at equal footing must be made loudly.

As for the merits of Professor Chapman's "case," I see several problems. First, AIDS. This is not a homosexuals-only disease, nor only spread through "morally aberrant sexual behavior (including heterosexual promiscuity in Africa and elsewhere)." Blood transfusions, shared needles, these also spread HIV. And even if you could make the argument that we could wipe out AIDS by discouraging promiscuity, that is an argument FOR homosexual marriage. What is marriage but a social encouragement to be monogamous? Surely Professor Chapman doesn't think that people will simply stop having sex if they can't get married. The lack of social acceptance for homosexual relationships in the past drove gay people to casual, promiscuous relationships that did indeed help to spread AIDS. The fear of being caught prevented any attempts at long-term relationships, but the physical desires for sex could not be simply ignored. These are historical facts, along with the fact that gay couples have the same rate of breaking up as cohabiting heterosexual couples (16 and 17% respectively), while married couples have a break up rate of 4%. You want homosexual people to stop being promiscuous and thus stop spreading AIDS? Get them married! This also corresponds to Chapman's concerns about the economic costs of STDs in general.

Second, prison rape. Rape has nothing to do with gender preference, and everything to do with power. Just as heterosexual rape does not equate at all with a loving heterosexual relationship, prison rape does not equate at all with a loving homosexual relationship.

Third, health insurance. Ignoring the odd complaint of a self-avowed Christian that helping others with health insurance keeps him from getting more health insurance (Jesus would not be happy with that argument, see his views on the poor and how to get into heaven), these companies and and universities that offer domestic partner coverage are not being forced to by any government concerns, it is purely through the "invisible hand" of economics, which isn't that invisible. All market pressures are really social pressures, and these companies/universities have decided that they will either get better employees or look better socially and get more customers/better students from offering these benefits. Yes, some organizations might be driven by individual political beliefs, but if society – and thus the economy – did not support those beliefs then those organizations would fail.

Fourth, providing other services. Chapman's last full paragraph doesn't make any sense. If life insurance companies have more people to cover, the insurance pool is increased, thus reducing risk, and thus costs would decrease. In fact, insurance companies would make more money because of more potential policies to sell, and the increase in profits helps the economy. Likewise with lawyers and divorces or other legal considerations. Lawyers will have more opportunities to make money, so they won't have to create as high a profit margin, so our costs go down (or at least stay the same). And if the lawyers are making higher profits, the economy grows.

People were concerned about the economic costs of allowing women to work full-time. People were concerned about the economic costs of allowing slaves to go free. Economic costs were used to justify discrimination against Jews, Italians, Irish, Blacks, Hispanics, and any other minority group. These proposed economic costs never proved out. By expanding the number of people invited to participate in society, the society and thus the economy grows.

I hope Professor Chapman fully considers both the economic arguments against his position, and the myriad ethical and moral arguments against his stance.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Run, Theorist, Run!

I missed the FriPod this last week due to getting ready for my first marathon. I ran in the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis, after training all summer and fall. My official results are 1208th place overall (out of 1978 who finished), 151st in my age group (out of 198 who finished), with an overall time of 4:28:57.1 My 10K split was 56:26.2, my half-marathon split was 1:59:41.0, and my 30K split was 2:57:10.1. My average pace was 10:15 per mile. I started out with the 9:10 pace group, and stayed with them through about mile 16. Then I started slowing down, though it felt very gradual until about mile 22 when I started walking longer times during my water breaks. I feel pretty good today, only very mild muscle protests in my quads and outer calf muscles. I'm still debating whether to do another marathon next, or try a triathlon.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Busy Day

Today my sophomores performed their third set of comprovisations, incorporating sequences for the first time. In between classes I shot one of my students and got stabbed in the neck by another, taking me out of the game. After classes I went over to the Union building for a faculty forum, including free lunch. After eating and discussing the evolution of language and music with some colleagues, I gave a very short presentation on students submitting self-recordings for homework. The forum topic was on how to deal with student absences due to illness, sports, or other reasons. I wasn't thinking about these reasons when I decided to have students record themselves sight singing with Audacity and submit the recordings as mp3s on our online course management system (Moodle). Instead, I was just trying to figure out a way to give 25 students in a musicianship class enough opportunities to perform for evaluation. With recordings, I can grade 50 students in 30 minutes, because the recordings remove all of the "ums," restarts, and other time eaters from lack of preparedness or nerves. It would take me at least three class periods, probably four, to grade the same number of students, and that would be without any opportunities for dictations or other exercises. But the system I use can also be used to hear oral presentations from absent students.

Right after giving my presentation, I ran back to the music building to play in a brass quintet for a student's senior recital jury. We will be performing Malcolm Arnold's Brass Quintet at the end of the month. Then I went back to the Union to get my laptop, which had been used by the other presenters at the workshop. And then back to the music building to advise two students on their class schedules for next semester and grad school plans, and tutor a student on species counterpoint. I finally had time to start writing the two exams I am giving on Monday for Theory I and III, before going to pick up the kids from school. There was no afterschool program today because of a book fair and pancake supper (see more about that below), so I had to pick them up right before 3 pm. We went home to clean the hamster cage so they would be ready to for show and tell tomorrow, and get dressed for karate class. I also started laundry, which was getting in desperate straits from my extended absence at the conference.

Piano lessons for each of the kids, picking out pieces for the end-of-semester recital. Karate class, hopefully to burn off some of the kids energy, while I continued to work on the exams. Then back to the elementary school for the semiannual fundraising event, the pancake supper. A quick and unsatisfying pancake dinner was followed by a very cute performance by the 2nd graders of music from Seussical the Musical, which the whole school will be seeing this year in Indianapolis. Then a quick visit to the book fair so the kids could burn their allowances on books, then back home for homework and more laundry. Plus playtime with a very antsy dachshund.

Notice how my day was so busy that I started shifting into Twitter/Facebook status-speak? There was no time for subjects or articles! Now the kids are in bed, 2/3rds of the laundry is folded and put away, and I have a tired dachshund curled up on my lap. My grammar is slowly coming back again. Good night!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Shifts in attitude

When I was in college, from 1988-1993, jazz ensembles had become accepted on college campuses. My jazz director told about trying to get a university jazz ensemble started in the early '70s while he was a student, and the resistance that was put up by the faculty and administration. In my time there was still resistance, but it was of the idea that jazz could engender the same levels of scholarship that classical music inspired. There were professors who scoffed at the idea of extended tertian harmonies from jazz having anything in common with classical harmonies. And I personally heard opinions that performing jazz would be detrimental to one's development as a classical musician, though fortunately not from my own trumpet professors. We can also look at the lack of enthusiasm third-stream music received for a long time, with composers such as Alec Wilder regarded as novelty acts rather than serious artists.

I'm reminded of these old attitudes by an announcement that Chamber Music America is honoring Chick Corea with The Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award and a tribute concert on January 16-17 as part of their national conference. The SMT conference I just attended also shows this change of attitude, with many papers analyzing jazz and rock music within normal sessions, as opposed to the special sessions that these "canon-breaking" genres often had to be scheduled in to get considered. The canon has indeed been broken wide open, at least for the strong majority of academic environments. These shifts in attitude give me hope, both for my profession and for life in general, despite the recent political setback in Maine.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Conference wrap-up

I had planned to post some observations during the conference itself, but I was too busy either attending the conference, or socializing with people from the conference. Now that I'm home, I have (some) time to socialize with you, my internet companions. First off, I took part in my first biosensor experiment. On Halloween night, I was wired up with electromyography sensors on my frowning and smiling muscles in my face, with a pulse cuff and galvanic skin response sensors on my left hand, and a respiration monitor around my chest, providing an awesome Halloween costume. I and my fellow biosensor participants were treated to a live concert of three pieces – a madrigal by Arcadelt, a movement of a Schumann string quartet, and a new piece for an electronic instrument (the T Stick) that involves dramatic movements by the performer – while our physiological responses were recorded. Another group of participants at the same concert/experiment were asked to indicate their continuous emotional states in two dimensions – arousal and valence – on specially programmed iPods. Afterward we saw results from previous iterations of the experiment and discussed our reactions to the experiment. This was all hosted by CIRMMT.

I saw two very interesting papers on Copland's Quiet City for trumpet, english horn, and strings. Both papers discussed the shifts in diatonic collections within the piece, though one paper focused more on a system with a dialectic between fifths and half-steps to discuss the dramatic points, whereas the other paper worked on identifying the most stressed pitches, thus a sense of key for the different structural divisions. I disagree with both presenters about the most salient pitch at the opening, but appreciate many of the points they each made.

I'm tempted to read Proust after seeing a paper that explores a narrative of Debussy's instrumental music based on Proust's conceptions of time and memory. The three machines of the "Proustian narrative" are memory, eternity, and crisis, which the author (Michael Klein) identified in key moments of Reflets dans l'eau and the Cello Sonata.

I learned how to part-write Shape-Note hymns from a paper by Robert Kelley. He explained how the harmonic tradition of Sacred Harp music differed from standard harmonic practices, and developed a means for teaching the different way of harmonizing.

I'll finish with a brief description of the keynote address by Susan McClary, entitled "In Praise of Contingency: The Powers and Limits of Theory." Professor McClary is most-known as the author of polemic books such as Feminine Endings that explored how gender bias had influenced musical scholarship. She often beat up theorists for not considering social contexts enough when describing musical structures, so many of us were apprehensive about what she would say. Her speech was great. Funny, erudite, featuring the goblin who strides across the universe as a fitting Halloween topic. In the end, her talk was about a difficulty that was demonstrated in the experiment I described at the beginning of this post. Musicians are very good at performing emotions, but we are not good at describing, or even being conscious of, the emotions we feel when listening to music. Those participants with the iPods had difficulty remembering to move their fingers to indicate shifts in emotion, or to even be able to translate what they were feeling to the two dimensions of arousal and valence. Likewise, Susan McClary described how resistant people are to facing the goblins created by Beethoven's music, that the powerful emotions created are too strong or scary to be clearly identified, much less be analytically described.