Monday, August 30, 2004

Teaching examples

Kyle Gann provides some good examples of bad program notes. I'm mostly posting this so I remember to use this when my first-year students start to write program notes in about five weeks. By the way, my blog is an expression of the never-ending dialectic within myself, exhibited with the confidence of the briefest pun conflicting with the illusory structure of the entire blog.

What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! (say it again)

President Bush declared war on terrorism after the U.S. was attacked on 9/11/01. Today he announced that this war is unwinnable. I have two thougts about this. (I actually have more than two, but the rest are unprintable.)

First, what military or political theory would justify the continued pursuit of a war that can't be won? We cannot afford the continued expenses to wage war in perpetuity. These expenses include financial costs, soldiers' lives, and the erosion of civil liberties. While reasonable people are willing to make sacrifices to achieve greater goods, they are not willing to make continuous sacrifices with no achievement in sight.

Second, the current administration has used the phrase "war on terror" to justify crackdowns on civil liberties and sweeping new powers for the president: Because "we are fighting a war right now," we should detain people without trials. Because of the war we should not question the president or change to a different leader. This war has been used to excuse the outing of CIA agents, the squashing of the press and protestors, and the denial of legal rights to both foreigns and U.S. citizens. If this war will never be over, then the Republicans are really shooting for a permanent state of martial law.

Forever wars are the stuff of Orwell and Haldeman, scifi visions of bleak dystopias. The permanent war is not the basis for a free and democratic society.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Class Blog is Up

My First Year Seminar students have started posting to their new blog, The Musical Crematorium. For the first two weeks they are providing definitions of useful music terms. They will then be writing about their experiences with world music, performance anxiety, and music technology as they learn about these things from my colleagues. For the second half of the semester the students will be writing reviews, biographies, textbook entries, program notes, and article abstracts.

The students are required to make at least five comments each week on each others posts, and at least one posted article each week. I'm looking forward to seeing how their writing and critical thinking skills improve through the semester. Feel free to make suggestions to the students on their posts, or to me on the design of the blog project.

Update! I have been accused of oppressing my students' constitutional rights by requiring them to blog.
It may be fun to keep an eye on this professor's experiment in involuntary blog servitude, which I would have thought would be unconstitutional, but hey, they're only students, it's not like they deserve to have rights or something.

I know my students sometimes call me a slavedriver, but I thought it was a term of endearment. Hmm...

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Anthemgate lives!

I've had an amazing increase in hits for the last few days. Many of my new viewers come via Virginia Postrel and Tim Sandefur, with others finding me through searches for "national anthem at the olympics Breiner" or variants thereof.

It is curious that none of these visitors have left comments. Neither Virginia nor Tim have comments enabled on their blogs, so perhaps their regular readers aren't used to commenting. Eszter Hargittai has written about the democratic value of comments, allowing nonblogging people to have a voice in the blogosphere. Stand up and allow your voices be heard, people!

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Class Blogging

Charles Downey has been soliciting ideas for his course on 20th century opera. In his summary article he lets slip that the students will be involved in a blogging project. This struck me, as I have also created a class blog for one of my courses, a First Year Seminar on critical reading and writing about music. Will blogs become a regular part of the college curriculum? In my case I'm using the blog to encourage regularly-practiced experimental writing and thoughtful criticism. I've tried online discussions before, using my campus' Blackboard service, but the students did not take it very seriously. I hope that the public nature of the blog will get the students more invested in the project, which certainly seems to be the case in the debate over the name of the blog. I made a list of the music blogs I currently link to, as ideas to stir the creative process. They made the jump to the crematorium idea from an inside joke involving their peer mentor. (All First Year Seminars at DePauw are assigned an upperclass student as a mentor, a very good way to help new students with the tribulations of college life.) They have also been having fun creating pseudonyms for the blog, though everyone in the class will know who belongs to each tag.

It will be interesting to see if class blogging takes off as an academic tool, or if it is just a fad. I'll let you know how I feel after the semester is over.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Blame Canada

I have more information about "Anthemgate," the dastardly re-orchestration of the Star Spangled Banner at the Olympics. The perpetrator is Canadian composer Peter Breiner, as part of a nefarious plan for the Canadians to take over the Olympic Games. This is the first Olympics to use unified arrangements of the anthems. Each was approved by a national representative, but clearly Breiner was sneaking in his political views. David Horowitz needs to take on the music world after he cleanses academia.

But wait! The scandal continues. Breiner isn't really Canadian, he is Czech. I knew the Europeans were behind this. They want to weaken our position in the world by playing our heroic and warmongering anthem with sappy strings instead of the brass and percussion that God intended. What do they think music is for, creating harmony?

Friday, August 20, 2004

What so softly we hail...

On the SMT-List David Loberg Code comments on the different orchestration of the Star Spangled Banner being used at the Olympic games. He suggests that the soft strings and non-standard harmonization at "the bombs bursting in air" may be an attempt to portray a less aggressive or martial United States of America. He then asks what constitutes the official national anthem. Igor Stravinsky was arrested in Boston for desecrating a national treasure with icky modernist harmonies. Perhaps the Boston police will arrest the IOC next.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Easier link

I've added *twentieth-century-music* to my Music Sites list to the left. The URL link will take you past any login screens, directly to the journal itself. No registration necessary!

Monday, August 16, 2004

Musical Beginnings

Musical Beginnings: Origins and Development of Musical Competence is a collection of articles on developmental psychology that explores how and when musical ability is developed. It is sadly out of print, even though it was written only eight years ago. What makes this book unique among the literature on musical development is the heavy emphasis on the very earliest stages of development, from prenatal sound perception to preschool perception of time sequences. Over half of the book is devoted to these early stages: "Prenatal auditory experience" by Jean-Pierre Lacunet, "Musicality in infancy research: biological and cultural origins of early musicality" by Hanu˘s Papou˘sek, "Infants' auditory sensitivity towards acoustic parameters of speech and music" by Christoph Fassbender, "Intuitive parenting: a hidden source of musical stimulation in infancy" by Mechthild Papou˘sek, and "The development of the perception of time and temporal regulation of action in infants and children" by Viviane Pouthas. These are fascinating articles, though I am somewhat sceptical on how accurate the psycoacoustic measures are, based as they are on a variety of indicators such as head turning and non-nutrative sucking in combinations with visual reinforcements or observer-based forced choice.

The other three articles are more standard, dealing with school age children. The results are interesting, though not any different than The Developmental Psychology of Music and not as detailed. I don't think I will use this book in my psychology of music course, though I will point it out to students who are interested in infant development as their individual project.

Tootin' Indiana's horns*

I previously wrote about the audition process for the 3rd trumpet of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The local paper had a follow-up article in yesterday's edition, though it was in the Arts section rather than the front page. Besides giving some more details about incoming trumpeter Tom Hooten (including his upcoming wedding), it also highlights 1st Lt. Michelle A. Rakers, University of Evansville graduate and new assistant director of "The President's Own" Marine Band. She is the first female conductor for this group, reflecting the sad state of gender politics both in military life and in the conducting world. But hopefully Lt. Rakers will have the opportunity to be a role model for future band directors of any gender.

*I picked the title just to have an excuse to write "Tootin'."

Friday, August 13, 2004

A new online music journal

Do you like 20th century music? Of course you do! Do you like reading about 20th century music, but don't have access to university libraries and can't afford that subscription to Perspectives of New Music? Now your prayers have been answered. *twentieth century music*, *tcm* for short, is a new journal published by Cambridge University Press. The first issue just came out last month. The journal is devoted to "leading research on all aspects of the music of the long twentieth century--Western art music, music from non-Western traditions, popular music, film music, jazz, improvised music, and performance practice." It is currently available at no charge online, after you sign in as a guest and ask to browse the journals (I used alphabetical). It looks pretty good. Tim Rutherford-Johnson will be interested in Charles Wilson's article on "Ligeti and the Rhetoric of Autonomy," and Susan McClary's review of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde should spark some interesting conversations.

In Defense of Theory

Kyle Gann has posted a letter from Jean Lawton that takes issue with set theory or any applications of math to music composition. She particularly names Allen Forte (though misspelling his first name), Milton Babbitt, and Robert Morris as “Musical Josef Mengeles.” The latter two are both composers and theorists, the former the dean of American music theory. They have all written about the application of math to music. Babbitt and Morris have written music based upon mathematical principles. To Jean, this results in the flensing of “ligaments of language, the tendons of cultural connotations, the muscles of synaesthaesia, and all the skin of extra-mathematical supra-logical aspects from music left us with set of bleached bones.” I will approach my apologia from two fronts. First, I will claim that Jean sets up false dichotomies of vague descriptions vs. equations and logic, language vs. math in discussions of music. Second, I will point out some horrible misuses of cognitive science in supporting her claims that set-theoretic music is un-natural. And third, I will provide reasons why logical views of music are beneficial, especially to performers.

Jean claims that the choices for musical discussion are to A) not talk about music, B) reduce music to equations and logic, or C) rely upon vague isms. This ignores options such as counterpoint, texture, motives, harmonic categories (Hindemith, Schenker, Riemann, extended chords or basic triadic harmony), rhythm, hermeneutics, semiotics (though Jean does quote Nattiez), reception theory, phenomenology, or a whole slew of other means of analysis that don’t have equations as the answer. They do rely upon logic, but usually logic of the artistic kind, rather than symbolic logic. Schenker’s theories talk about transformations and operations as if it is math, but he designed these operations upon the logic that tonal music follows, not upon artificially-imposed mathematical rules. This is basically the same for other types of analysis, with various levels of assumptions or empirical bases.

Next, I would challenge Jean to make the distinction between language and math. Math is a language, designed to communicate ideas either precisely or imprecisely, just as other languages can. It is not inhuman, as Jean suggests, as it was designed by humans. It can describe abstract ideals or pragmatic facts, and do so elegantly or clumsily. The English language also shares these qualities, and can be just as stultifying as any mathematical description. And how much math is considered unacceptable? Bach was fond of encoding numerological symbols in his music, Bartòk utilized the Fibonacci Series/Golden Section in much of his music, Hindemith made ‘3’ significant in Mathis der Maler, and Crumb made ‘7’ and ‘13’ significant in Black Angels. Is that too much to talk about? What about neo-Riemannian functions in the harmonic progressions of Brahms or Wagner? Even simple ideas like tuning and intervals rely upon mathematical principles.

Jean supports her claims of the failure of set theory by citing James Clerk Maxwell (who was actually responding to Helmholtz’s new acoustic theories rather than any set theories, as they didn’t exist yet), PET scans that suggest the connection between pitch perception and visual imagination, Leonard Meyer, L.S. Lloyd, and 4th graders. First a response to the pitch perception idea: cross-cultural studies have shown that notational formats determine physical analogies for pitch and rhythm. Because the Western system of notation places high frequency pitches higher on a staff, we associate pitches in a vertical framework. Studies with people who do not know or use Western notation use different descriptions of pitch. It is not a hard-wired universal, nor are Meyer’s claims of timbre descriptions. In Chinese instrumental playing timbres are described by the gestures that produce them. Studies by Kendall and Carterette have shown discrepancies between German and American concepts of timbre, that “sharp” is not as relevant as “nasal” is to American ears. For every cognitive fact that Jean can find that could support the “unnatural” aspects of set-theoretic music, I could find one that shows the perceptual salience of inversions and retrogrades. It really comes down to aesthetics, which is a much more personal issue.

I am a bit uncertain whether Jean is complaining about theorists analyzing music with mathematical tools, or composers creating works using mathematical processes. The first mention is of analysis, one of her alternatives for talking about music. But then she critiques music composed by Babbitt, so it seems that she has it in for both sides. First a defense of theorists: as another reader, Adam Baratz, points out to Kyle, it is better to engage music by what’s inside the piece, rather than from a purely ideological stance. I disagree about the cheesiness of Philomel, as I think it is a devastating piece, full of the emotion and violence of rape. But it is worthwhile to examine the inner workings of a piece of music with all the tools at hand. This helps in aesthetic arguments, in performance decisions, and in finding common ground for any discussions about music.

As for set-theoretic music, by which I think Jean really means serial music, integrated serial music specifically, Sturgeon’s Law applies to that group of pieces as much as any other. 90% of total serial music is utter crap, including some by Babbitt, Boulez, and Stockhausen. Perhaps even more than 90% in this case, though I think it just seems that way because we are still too close to that period. But some serial pieces do acheive a transcendent beauty. I would place Messiaen’s Modes des valeurs et d’intensités in that category. Jean is right that music needs an emotional underpinning, a connection with the human listeners. But that connection is not dependent upon a specific process of composition, or a single musical language.

For what it’s worth, I do agree with Kyle about the benefits of genre labels, as a shorthand for communicating features that many pieces share. It also helps to establish the aesthetic expectations an audience will need to appreciate a given work.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Art and Politics

First, a googlebomb for the most liberal senator in Congress.

Now that that's out of my system, I want to discuss the inclusion of politics in my music-oriented blog. Caspar tries to stay away from politics in his blog. Jesse and Steve talk about whether musicians have the right to give their political opinions. This morning on Morning Edition Meryl Streep was asked if it is okay for her to be both starring in a political thriller and to make statements about politics (about 2:30 into the show). She made the great answer that it is okay for any citizen to make statements, as long as they are well-read and informed about the subject. I will only comment on political things when I feel I understand the issues well enough. I will also only make political posts if I have something to say that no one else has said. Sometimes it will be from an artist's perspective, sometimes a scholar's perspective, and sometimes just something I thought up and didn't see posted anywhere else. Take it as you will.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

So that's what a generational gap feels like!

Today a group of students were giving a presentation on Philip Glass. (Amusing aside, they started the presentation by filling a glass with water. Get it?) One student was describing Glass's life in Paris as a young composer, where he was hired to transcribe Ravi Shankar's music into Western notation. Ravi Shankar, hero of classical Indian music; the man who taught John, Paul, and George how to play the sitar and the tabla. That Ravi Shankar. The student's description of Shankar? "He's the dad of Norah Jones." So much for the "godfather of world music." (George Harrison, for you damn youngsters.)

The thing is, I'm only about twelve years older than these students. At least I know who Norah Jones is. What will it feel like when I'm 50? My daughter will be in college then, so I guess I will have to make connections with that generation through her. "John Tavener wrote music using poetry by Bob Dylan. He's Jakob Dylan's dad."

Three's company, fifteen's a crowd

I previously promised to post something about Ligeti, so here goes. Ligeti coined the term 'micropolyphony' to describe how he created his soundmass compositions. Soundmasses had been used by Varèse and Penderecki, though constructed in very different ways. The general conception is of sound as a physical object that can interact with other soundmass objects (Varèse regarded them as atoms, which repell and penetrate each other). Ligeti used traditional forms of polyphony, such as stretto and mirror canons, but his goal was not a layering of intelligible and independent voices, but a murmuring of a whole crowd of voices (from 16 to 50) that creates a web of sound, the soundmass. Isaac Watras points out that Bach also used polyphony to this effect at times:
Being clever, but not for the sake of being clever, all of Bach's imitation and fancy counterpoint has purpose. The voice crossings, close ranges, and similar lines may have been the qualities that the early Baroque composers hoped to discourage. And this is not the clarity of voices that is generally associated with Bach. Much of the detail seems to have been written more for the performer than the listener. Nevertheless, it is a complex sound that achieves large scale events. And these events are well controlled because of Bach's clever technique.

David Huron has presented research on the perceptual salience of Bach's counterpoint, though he restricts himself to Bach's pedagogical/exploratory works -- The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Art of the Fugue, and The Musical Offering -- and some of his organ works. Watras points out that Bach's writing for choir and orchestra is perceptually messier, though the technique is still controlled. This is probably due to the larger musical forces that Bach is dealing with, as well as the concerns of text painting.

So Ligeti is not necessarily revolutionary in his approach to polyphony, though he is much more deliberate in his blurring of voices. Maybe instead of his Lux Aeterna and Atmospheres, Kubrick could have used Bach's B minor Mass in 2001 ... maybe not.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Pardon me, Aristotle, but do you have an eon to chat?

My new friend Carlos is wrong, I'm not going to hell (at least not the pain and torment one):

The Dante's Inferno Test has sent you to the First Level of Hell - Limbo!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Very High
Level 2 (Lustful)High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Very Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very High
Level 7 (Violent)Moderate
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Very Low

Take the Dante's Inferno Hell Test

(I found this at Sounds and Fury, blame him.)

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Something about Psycho music?

I’m back from ICMPC8. My attendance at this conference rates as the second-most skipped sessions, after the Acoustical Society of America conference I presented at in 2001. The ASA is a huge conference, ranging from biomedical ultrasonics to psychoacoustics, submarine sonar to speech perception. I only attended the sessions specific to music, which was about 1/100th of the conference. This time, the whole conference was in my specific field of music psychology, but I had to arrive very late due to teaching obligations, and leave a little early due to family obligations. It is a shame, because I really enjoyed the sessions I saw and the people I met.

I arrived Thursday at 11:30, in time to register and see three papers before chairing my own session. I really enjoyed Ana Volk’s talk on finding inherent periodicities in syncopated music, though I think there are problems with her weighting of different levels of periodicity, as those at higher levels can be weighted less, even if they have strong perceptual salience due to heirarchic support from lower levels. My chaired session went well, not heavily attended but with enthusiastic questions. The presenter was somewhat nervous during her talk, but she explained herself clearly, and handled questions very well afterward. She didn’t go long, so I didn’t have to be a time bully. The paper was on the affect of performers’ attractiveness on judgements of musical quality. Children ranging from grades 2 to 8 rated the quality of student cellists performances. Females that were also judged as attractive were scored higher than those that were not as physically attractive, when adjusted for other factors. This is related to a study I saw about the affect of dress upon teaching evaluations by students.

The Thursday afternoon session was short (naturally), so attendees could spend the evening and night enjoying Chicago. Unfortunately, not many musical events were scheduled for Thursday night, but it was a good thought. I went out to dinner in Evanston with my family and mother-in-law (she came down to visit and help my wife with the kids while I was at the conference), and then drove around campus, stopping to gaze upon Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. This is where my wife would like to go for her priestly training. We had planned to walk around campus, but gale-force winds kept us in the mini-van.

Friday I was late for the morning sessions, due to the chaotic nature of getting 2- and 4-year-olds ready to go out for breakfast. I saw one truly gawdawful paper by a Ph.D. student at Boston University, who did his research supported by Massachussetts General Hospital (Steve, have Orhun check this guy out, I’ll email you the name). The research topic was fine, but he had not done any adequate literature searches, so he missed the last twenty-five years of relevant articles that already covered everything he tried to do. He also made the very bad assumption that the psychologist-majority in the audience was ignorant about statistical methods, including ANOVAs: “it’s sort of like a t-test.” So this raised the hackles of everyone, who slammed him afterwards with the lack of literature and the fact that he misused the very ANOVA that he was so smug about. He had two factors to his design, yet he chose a one-way ANOVA for some reason, ignoring any possibility of interaction between these two factors even though that was supposed to be the purpose of the study. Oops.

Friday afternoon was spent at a great session on timbre, where I got to chat with Roger Kendall afterwards. He is very big in the field, plus he chaired the session I presented in today, so it was good to be on his good side. Somehow I managed to impress him with my knowledge of the literature, so maybe writing a timbre book isn’t such a farfetched idea. Friday evening consisted of swimming with the kids, and another family dinner. The rest of that day was spent agonizing over the realization that I had forgotten the power cord to my laptop. So? you may ask. Said laptop, with a battery charge of 1 minute, has my PowerPoint presentation on it (I like PowerPoint, so sue me.) If it was just visuals, it wouldn’t be a big deal, I could draw on the chalkboard. But I had sound files imbedded in the presentation, which were planned to take up about 8 minutes of my presentation. If I didn’t have those, much of the point of the presentation would be lost and I would have a very short paper.

Fortunately Macs rule supreme in the music world, even among engineers and psychologists. The next morning I was able to borrow a cord, recharge my battery, and give the presentation without a hitch (except for Microsoft’s insistance on quitting whenever I hook up the computer to a projector.) The session was very enjoyable, with two other great papers and good questions all around. Afterwards I got offers of help in data crunching and acoustical analysis from David Wessel and Jim Beauchamp, who were among the trumpet playing fans in the audience. I will definitely take them up on those offers.

We are now home, all rather stressed from broken eating and sleeping schedules. Crashing for nine hours will soon commence.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

My kind of town, Chicago is.

I'm going to ICMPC8 very early Thursday morning, which means I have to spend tomorrow tying up all loose ends at school, polishing my paper, and packing. My family is going up to Evanston with me, so any free time I have will be spent in tourist mode, not engaged in the live blogging of psychologists, theorists, and educators that the world demands. Sorry. I'll give some sort of summary impression after I get back on Saturday.

In the meantime, my bro has his second post up: a comparison of how the two candidates differ in the treatment of small businesses, and why it is important for all Americans. I had no idea how the tax system works for businesses, but then, Bush clearly doesn't either.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Nepotism is only relative

My brother has a new blog, (and I mean really new, only one post thus far) called Notes from Boston. He and his girlfriend were volunteers at the convention last week, plus he has been manning phone banks for the Kerry campaign for many months. The blog will probably be devoted to politics, but if you ask nicely he may discuss the Bing-like properties of fluids or the melting point of an artificial hip. And he really should include a link to his brass quintet website, Valve Job. I'm sure it was just an oversight.

Is classical music well-bred?

Greg Sandow is concerned that classical music has always been concerned with lofty subjects, giving it an elitist air. But I think he is looking in the wrong places for evidence of radical thought. Instead of regarding the plots of operas or the texts for oratorios, we should instead view the musical language or style for correspondance to Swift's satire or Dickens' ruthless realism. Haydn set his oratorios to lofty biblical subjects, but the musical phrases abound with satire, or at least with humor. He would make asymmetric phrases by adding an extra "ha ha" or making a mocking repetition of a motive. He had the surprise in the Surprise Symphony, and the subtly ironic message to his patron in the Farewell Symphony, through manipulation of the musical stuff itself, not through the use of extramusical resources.

Beethoven may have used a safe subject in his one opera, but his symphonies abound with the realistic humanism of 19th century thought. The unsettling opening and closing of the Seventh Symphony's second movement, or the uncertain form of the third movement (related to the deliberate confusions of perception in the ha-ha garden by one musicologist), expresses the uncertainty of life as ably as Dickens' novels. The second movement doesn't have a happy ending, it in fact ends exactly the same as it starts, despite the efforts of the C major section or the beautiful countermelody in the cellos. The third movement does finish on a happy note, but we aren't sure where we were, given the extensions of each section in the introductions to the next section and the lack of pattern to the repetitions.

In the critics' debate I mentioned below, Sandow also laments a lack of connect between classical music and the Beat generation of the 50s or the revolutions of the 60s. Again I would say that he is looking in the wrong spots, or dismissing connections too easily (Crumb and Stockhausen in the 60s). I would point to Penderecki and Ligeti, Cage and Partch as the equivalents in the that period, though their revolutions did not depend upon referents to the literature of that time (though Stockhausen did use his own erotic poetry that was inspired by Howl), just as the authors and artists of the 50s and 60s did not need to refer to contemporary classical composers. And Sandow ignores the performance artists who stride both worlds, in Nam June Paik and the other Fluxus contributors.

I say that classical music has not been too well-bred, as long as one looks at the right genomes.