Monday, April 23, 2012

Oh, the humanity!

I found this post through Corey Dargel's tweet.  Corey appreciates the "intense and insightful review" of his concert.  I was intrigued, but also confounded by a bold statement made by George Grella that
"Pop music may be affirm­ing, but it is exceed­ingly rare that it is truly human­ist, that it is sym­pa­thetic towards the things that it is not, and that the world of pop music — musi­cians, crit­ics and fans — is barely aware that any other music exists attests to this. Embrac­ing human­ist val­ues means embrac­ing human­ity, and that, beyond all abstract tech­ni­cal achieve­ment, is what clas­si­cal music does, and has done, and what pop music has yet to develop as a fun­da­men­tal value."  
I think it is wrong, and yet brilliant.  Pop fans are just as blinkered as classical fans.  Pop musicians tend to be less musically educated than classical musicians, but only when considering beginners.  Those pop musicians who have survived their sophomore albums without receding to obscurity have demonstrated a broader awareness of the artistic world, equal to that of their counterparts in the classical world.  Paul Simon embraces South African music.  Dave Matthews loves Vivaldi.  Even Justin Bieber has an awareness of jazz as a counterpart to his knowledge of hip hop and pop.  And for every popular musician who is unaware of the existence of classical music, there is an opposing classical musician who believes popular music is not worthy of acknowledgment. 

Going beyond the claims of awareness of the other, popular music attempts to express the human condition just as much as classical music.  Some popular music can be very monothematic about human emotions, focusing on love and/or lust, injustice or depression.  But Baroque music had its own Doctrine of the Affections to limit content.  The musicological concept of Gebrauchmusik could slander some of Hindemith's music, Bach's dance suites, and "The Twist" equally for the goal of community-building action rather than emotional contrasts.  And yet these songs are meant to join humanity together, helping people from different backgrounds to unite in a larger sense of culture.  Is that not humanitarian?

I think George's post is brilliant for addressing the need of music to be humanistic.  I completely agree that the best artworks contain contradictions, nuance, and heart.  Beauty formed from contrasts of the ugly and the pleasant, this is what both represents us and teaches us how to be better humans.  I have experienced these challenges in classical music, in popular music, in jazz music, in world music.  I have also found these elements of humanism in the "high" and "low" forms of painting, literature, film, theater, and dance.  It is wonderful to see a passionate reminder of why the arts are so important, especially as I get ready to argue against cuts to the arts in our local school board meeting tonight.

Friday, April 20, 2012


I am listening to Penn Jillette on the Nerdist podcast, and he just talked about the fear of being wrong.  He was riffing about a quote, and then pointed out the best way to find out if something is true is to say it publicly.  If it is wrong, you will be corrected.  It is only when people are willing to be caught being wrong that the truth will out, that learning will happen.  Penn is notorious for appearing fearless in stating his beliefs, and his willingness to admit when he is wrong.  But he just admitted that he still has fear of being wrong, but is also brave enough to continue despite of that fear.

I realized that this is my problem with my current writing block, and with all my previous writing blocks.  I am afraid of being caught being wrong.  Occasionally I let myself relax and write something outrageous.  Apparently I did so in my first blogging contest* entry, inspiring one judge (I think Nico Muhly?)  to call the post right, wrong, brilliant and infuriating. I also used to have a lot more humor on the blog, until with one post I manged to offend someone who let me know about it.  And since I'm not a sociopath, I do want people to like me, and therefore made the bad decision to curb my humor, especially the sarcasm.  Going through a divorce also hit me in the 'nads of affirmation.  Sometimes divorce makes people more bitter and cocky.  It made me self-effacing, questioning who I was in a very quiet way while trying to remain strong for my kids.  I've come back from the divorce, but I still have less bravery than what's good for me, something I need to fix.

So, I will make bold statements, always with the effort of being correct, but without the need to have my inner lawyer triple check each statement for accuracy.  I leave that to you, gentle readers, to point out to me in excruciating detail how I am wrong.  First up:  the key of a piece still matters in this world of equal temperament with a population of non-APers.  I'm taking this from the perspective of the listener, not the performer, though the comfort-level of the performer will affect the listener's experience.  Equal temperament did away with the characteristic "mistunings" of different keys that led to the various key characteristic charts.  And while Dan Levitin showed that most people can sing their favorite songs within a half-step of the original recording, the majority of the population cannot identify what key they just sang in, unless they studied the score (a statistically insignificant part of the population).

I believe keys matter for two reasons.  First, the timbre is affected by the key, and this is perceivable by the listener.  A string instrument that plays more open strings will have a different sound than playing more stopped strings.  An Ab4 has a different color than a Bb4 on a trumpet, due to different pipe lengths and compromises made in the instrument design.  And key choices will affect whether the music is in the high, middle, or low part of the instrument/voice's range, which will directly affect the color of the sound.  Second, the choice of key will affect that piece's relationship to surrounding pieces.  If Bach or the Ramones play everything in G major, a certain tension is created by the static nature of the timbre/key.  If a movement of a symphony is in an distantly-related key to the previous movement, the listener will experience a frisson of doubt that these movements belong together, or at least a reset of subconscious expectations. A pump-up within a song may be cheesy, but it is noticeable, because of the perceived relationship.  I have a question.  Is there an example of a pop or rock album that has a pump-up between songs?  (Song 1 is in C major.  Song 2 is in D major.  Song 3 is in Eb major, etc. etc.)

*Congratulations to Jennifer Rivera for winning, and to all of the finalists for some great writing.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Death and rebirth

I did not make it past the second round of the Spring For Music blogging challenge, but I'm grateful for the public support I received, and I'm happy that Elena SB and Will Robin have made it to the final four.  I had a great vacation in Key West, a wonderful Easter with my family, and am now tackling a book proposal that is due by the end of the month.  In the meantime, here are some strange composer deaths.  I would include some more:

1) jazz trumpeter and composer Lee Morgan.  He was murdered onstage by his wife, the details are questioned

2) Maurice Ravel suffered from brain lesions, and died after experimental surgery.

3) Schumann died in an insane asylum like Wolf, though the exact causes are debated.

4) Alessandro Stradella, assassinated due to an affair.

Feel free to add your own "favorite" deaths in comments, and make sure to vote for Elena and Will next week.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

How to rename a contest

I've made it to the second round of the Art Blogging Match of Doom (ABMOD).  I was quite glad to hear that at least one of the judges found me to be "right, wrong, brilliant, and infuriating." p I'm called at least two of those things regularly at home, it's nice to get the full gamut.  So here is the next writing prompt:

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

I started out thinking about how to characterize contemporary culture. I came up with the qualities of diversity, eclecticism, and ubiquity. As I wrote in the last contest post, the Internet has provided access to so many cultural experiences that we don't even blink at the ability to see a Finnish folk singer or a Brazilian ballet. Our culture isn't local, it is global. But this diversity is not creating thousands of artistic enclaves. Instead, any given person consumes a whole range of cultural products, even within a single art form. This diversity and eclecticism is encouraged by the economics of the new digital media, that allows selling the long tail to be a viable business plan.  I can sample a whole variety of poetry with little investment of my time or money, because I can locate recommendations from experts online, view samples for free, and purchase small quantities online.  Heck, there is an app for that!  And then I can discuss the poetry in online forums, to help my understanding and appreciation.  And with smart phones and tablets, I can reasonably expect to consume my diverse cultural products whenever and wherever I want.

Once I defined contemporary culture, the next step was to show which art form says the most about it.  My natural inclination was and always is to look to music.  I've been trained in music from the age of four, it is my main means of fun and profit. There are plenty examples of music that demonstrate those three qualities.  Despite his current troubles, Osvaldo Golijov created (with help) a work of genius in Ayre.  This song cycle is incredibly eclectic, combining elements from around the world and across many genres.  The ABMOD's own judge Nico Muhly is known for his eclectic approach to music as well.  Andrew Bird, Björk, Bon Iver, The Clogs, Bang on A Can All-stars, all these groups defy genre labels.  The pop/classical divide is not necessarily gone, but it has distinctly blurred.  I can write academically about Dave Matthews Band, and be accepted by my fellow music theorists, and an opera singer can make it on The Voice or Britain's Got Talent.

There are also great examples in books and video games; theater and dance; painting and sculpture; architecture and synchronized swimming.  But comments on contemporary culture, require a multi-media approach, using the languages of visual images, audio examples, and expository writing.  A film character can say explicitly, "contemporary culture is very eclectic," accompanied by great examples of rap from Pakistan and hip hop version of Carmen, while eating some fusion cooking.  A blog post can contain links to all these examples (watch out, I'm starting to get recursive here), and allows easy feedback from the consumer.  Blogs, of course are so 2008, so Twitter says the most about contemporary culture.  140 characters to allow us to sample from a wide number of followings without a huge time commitment.  Links to deeper coverage on Tumblr, YouTube, or online articles reward higher levels of interest, but with the consumer still in complete control.  This says a lot about our culture.

However, I found I had serious problems answering the posed question. Art exists within culture, thus any given art form cannot act as a disinterested observer. Just as the act of observation affects the result in quantum physics, a self-aware art form changes the culture around it. And since I based my definition of culture on my knowledge of art, it seems circular to then use that same art to comment on the state of culture. So while I think social media is an art form that says a lot about the state of contemporary culture, I don't think any given form can give an accurate picture by itself. It's sort of the artistic version of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.