Monday, February 28, 2005

I have a blog?

It's been a hectic time at the DePauw University School of Music. Two weeks ago the annual opera was staged, a racy version of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. One of my colleagues wants to know why his children, who don't watch TV and weren't told about the Can Can, fixated on that one number from the two-hour opera. He thinks there is something within "catchy tunes" that, um... catches the brain regardless of experience. Any thoughts?

These last two weeks, Joseph Flummerfelt (DePauw class of '58) was on campus to coach the choirs and lead masterclasses in conducting. He has wonderful thoughts about performing music, clearly influenced by his work with Leonard Bernstein. Both men have stated that performing music should feel as if the performer is composing or improvising the music right on the spot.

Last Friday, I gave a talk on class blogs to other DePauw faculty. It was well received, and a good practice for presentations I hope to make at theory conferences.

This Thursday is the beginning of Music in the 21st Century, with guest composer Augusta Read Thomas. I'm moderating a question/answer session with Augusta on Thursday, performing in a fanfare on Thursday and Sunday, and have organized a student symposium for Saturday afternoon. I also helped to organize the composition masterclass on Friday night.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I've been rather busy. Oh, welcome to all visitors from the Tangled Bank. Have fun, and please make comments.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Hey pal, can you spare a tune?

Following back a Yahoo search that brought someone to my blog, I was reminded of the existence of the Musical Borrowing Bibliography. This huge database lists articles and books about "borrowing, transcription, variations, quotation, cantus firmus technique, paraphrase, imitation/parody, modeling, allusion, and other ways to rework existing music, from troping and organum to collage and electronic manipulation." (From the introduction.) It is annotated, and can be searched by any term you want. A search for Brahms reveals an article that may support Helen's concerns.
Knapp, Raymond. "Brahms and the Anxiety of Allusion." Journal of Musicological Research 18 (1998): 1-30.

While Brahms's relationship to his predecessors, in particular Beethoven, seems to warrant the application of Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, it is perhaps more accurate to think of Brahms's anxiety as the result of tensions created by the expectations of his audience. Brahms realized that his audience would receive and judge his works in comparison to those of his revered predecessors. Therefore, he was faced with the task of creating music that was similar enough to his predecessors to be well-received by his audience while still maintaining the status of originality. Thus, Brahms foregrounded original, non-referential music while cultivating subtle and buried musical allusions that evoked his predecessors. These allusions served to invoke the music of Brahms's predecessors on a subconscious level while still allowing Brahms's music to be seen as highly original. It is this careful balancing act, not his feelings towards Beethoven and other composers, that created the anxiety for Brahms.

Works: Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (10-16), Symphony No. 3 in F Major (16-25).

Sources: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (11-15), Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (11-16), Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major, Eroica (19, 21, 23-24); Haydn: Symphony No. 97 in C Major (16-17, 19, 23-24); Schubert: String Quintet in C Major (16-17, 20); Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major, Spring (18, 20, 24-25), Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major, Rhenish (18, 21, 24-25); Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser (19-20, 23-24). (SLF)

NB: If you just want to browse, it is organized by the author of the book or article, not by the composer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Servant of Two Masters

Today was a long day, full of business and an intense period of frustration. To top it off, it is a Tuesday. Thus my wife is working late, not to come home until midnight strikes. These conditions make for an unhappy Scott, which leads to a melancholic instrospection.

As a music theorist, I find myself caught between several opposing factions. Theorists are trained to create rational explanations for artistic phenomena, to find patterns in the ephemeral. I am happy with this, especially with my ultra-rationalist scientific research in music cognition and perception. But I am also trained as a performer, trying to reach the hidden emotions within me and express them in inexpressable ways. This inner turmoil is reflected in academic politics, as the artists and the scholars face off with a seeming misunderstanding of what the other side does. I find myself in the middle, trained in both disciplines but really part of neither.

And then I rise up from my self-absorbed misery to see that things are not so bad. I am part of a reading group with some psychologists, exploring auditory perception. I am playing a fanfare by Augusta Read Thomas with a group of faculty and students for a conference in her honor. And I have my classes and this blog in which I can try to connect artistic and logical perspectives. I am not a servant of two masters, but rather a fortunate inheritor of two traditions.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Waay too much time on his hands...

I feel like this video was made just for me. Well, perhaps my wife, as she is a trumpeter from the University of Friggin' Michigan. While I don't agree with all the sentiments expressed in the video, it makes me happy that the students learned enough about the music to mock it. (And the Mussorgsky vs. Stravinsky battle is trumpetastic.)

Oh, Fred? The microwave oven is clearly a reference to the stochastic music of Xenakis. Just as the microwave randomly scrambles the water molecules in your burrito, Xenakis randomly scrambled the pitches in his tone rows. Granted, the point could have been made more obvious with the inclusion of a kitchen sieve on top of the microwave, but perhaps that would have put them over budget.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

New friends, new blogs

I've been introduced to two new music blogs from comments to my post on absolute pitch. Both are excellent, by working musicians in different parts of the world.

Ruth, a British cellist living in France, writes the blog meanwhile, here in france. She has some amazing insights on performance, including a post on how vulnerable we musicians can be when performing emotional music while in emotional turmoil.

Patty Mitchell is an oboist in the Bay area of California. I briefly mentioned her blog before: Oboeinsight. She uses the blog very effectively as a publicity tool, much like Terry Teachout.

I'm adding both blogs to my blogroll. Read and enjoy!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Is Perfection Teachable?

In comments to my previous post, Patty of Oboeinsight asks if absolute pitch can be taught. Do a google search for Learn absolute pitch and you will find many claims that you can do just that. The French conservatory method of ear training uses fixed-Do solfège in efforts to develop absolute pitch. My conclusions are based upon my own development of quasi-AP and from listening to countless undergraduate and graduate applicants to the Eastman School of Music as an Aural Skills supervisor.

First, adults without AP can develop a memory for specific pitches. I was required to memorize A440 as an undergraduate student, which I was able to do. I can still reproduce this note whenever I want, though my accuracy is not exact (± a quarter-tone). I can also reproduce a G when I think of the beginning to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, or a C# for the beginning of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. This is because I practiced these trumpet excerpts over and over for many years, so the memory was reinforced to the point of permanence.

Second, this ability will deteriorate very quickly if it isn't practiced constantly. Students who learned AP through fixed-Do solfège did not do well at sight singing, especially if they had finished their solfège training a year or more before the audition. My ability to produce an A fluctuates with how much I practice it, though lately I've been continuously reinforced from my daughter's Suzuki practice.

Third, some people still show more propensity to develop AP skills than others, suggesting a possible genetic component.

Finally, the quasi-AP that is learned is not the same type of pitch perception as "native" APers. A person with true AP places any pitch automatically within its proper pitch-class category. AP-as-a-second-perception does not engender this automatic labelling.

For some articles on Absolute Pitch, start with W. Dixon Ward's chapter in The Psychology of Music (Diana Deutsch, ed.) Next, Daniel Levitin's "Absolute representation in auditory memory," Perception and Psychophysics, 56,(1994), 414-423; R.W. Lundin, "Can perfect pitch be learned?" Music Education Journal, 69,(1963), 49-51; and K. Miyazaki, "Absolute pitch as an inability," Music Perception, 11,(1993), 55-72. Heck, just look through many of the articles in Scholar Google. Fortunately, much of the research was done under the auspices of NIH, so it is available online.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Pointillistic Perspective

Today we talked about Absolute Pitch (AP) in Psychology of Music. I had one of my theory students -- who is an AP possessor -- come in so the students could ask him questions during the discussion. In the spectrum of AP possession, this student is not at the extremely far end, so he can and does utilize relative pitch (RP) from time to time. Thus he was able to explain some of the differences between perceiving music through AP and through RP. Strict AP perception places each separate musical note into a category, ignoring any contextual identity such as being part of a chord or being the tonic note of the key. Thus this type of perception is very pointillistic, creating a picture of music not unlike a George Seurat painting. What I don't know (not being a strict AP possessor) is if, like a Seurat painting, the separate notes do meld together into a cohesive whole for an APer. It seems that any such melding would be a switch to an RP perspective. Thus any appreciation for the gestalt of a musical piece would necessitate some ability for relative pitch.

Some of my students wished they had AP, but this was primarily so they could do better on melodic dictations in the classroom. For the most part, AP does not help the musician, beyond creating an internal pitch pipe. Any AP possessors out there that want to offer their perspective (heh)?

Friday, February 11, 2005

Virtual Music Museum.

I've been cleaning up my email inbox, as I've accumulated over 350 messages in there and I learned that this is a very inefficient way of living. In doing so, I came across an annoucement for The Virtual Instrument Museum hosted by Wesleyan University's Music Department. The museum contains video and audio demonstrations of over 100 instruments from Wesleyan's World Musical Instrument Collection, played by Wesleyan faculty and students. Want to learn about a dundun, an axatse, or a kayagu˘m? This is your place. Besides recordings and videos, each display includes detailed descriptions of the materials, the playing techniques, and extensive bibliographies. Have fun!

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Rule of Law?

The one thing that makes a government trustworthy is that it plays by the rules. The rules are the laws it creates and the treaties it makes with other governments. Some governments' rules are very draconian, giving all power to the rulers and none to the people. These governments usually have few written laws, especially regarding the conduct of the rulers. Other governments have safeguards to define and protect the rights of the people, with specific limitations on the power of the rulers. These governments are usually answerable to the people in the form of democratic elections.

The United States of America prides itself on being democratic, with rights of the people enshrined in the Constitution and a variety of laws and legal precedents. But actions made by the current administration has been antithetical to this view. Today I hear that a U.S. citizen is being held in a Saudi prison at the behest of the U.S. government. He has no access to lawyers, and the the lawyers hired by his family have been denied access to evidence used by the government to justify his imprisonment. In fact, the administration has tried to say that it has the right to send U.S. citizens to foreign prisons with no legal protections or means of challenging the imprisonment. Not only is this completely against the concepts of fair trial and rule by law, but it sets a precedent that could lead to open fascism.

Alberto Gonzales, the incoming Attorney General and head law enforcement officer of the United States, believes the President can ignore laws. Part of this is traditional, that the Executive Branch checks the powers of the Legislative Branch with both the veto and the non-execution of unconstitutional statutes. However, the new idea is that the President can authorize the breaking of criminal laws not because they are unconsitutional, but because they could infringe "on the President’s ultimate authority in these areas [the conduct of war]." So when war is declared, the President can ignore any laws that get in his way.

Allowing the administration to ignore laws, to violate the very principles that the government was founded upon, is to no longer be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It becomes a dictatorship: the administration dictates what it can do and what people can't do, and that is it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Auditory Fun Fact #1

If you hum quietly just before a loud noise, it won't be as painful.

The two smallest muscles in the body are the stapedius muscle and the tensor tympani muscle. They hold together the three smallest bones in the body - the hammer, anvil and stirrup - within the middle ear. The two muscles can contract, reducing the amplification abilities of the three bones, though the reaction time of the muscles is too slow for unexpected loud noises. But these muscles (and muscles around the eardrum) automatically tense whenever we make a noise, such as a sneeze or a spoken word. These sounds rattle around inside our head as well as outside, so they could overwhelm our hearing mechanisms if this safetyguard wasn't in place. Humming or singing automatically sets the muscles, so the hearing system is protected when the loud noise occurs. But you can't start the humming too far in advance of the loud noise. The muscles are very weak, so they cannot maintain the protective stance for very long.

Update: I must stress that purposely exposing yourself to very loud noises is not a good thing to do. You can cause permanent hearing loss, something which should be anathema to anyone who reads this blog. If you absolutely have to crash that cymbol, then use the hum. But otherwise, lay off the percussion, people!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The purpose of music

Last week my Psychology of Music class had a discussion on the purpose of music. This was in response to a claim made by Charles Eagle, Jr., the author of the first chapter in the book we are using, the Handbook of Music Psychology. Eagle claims that society will be able to utilize the healing abilities of music once we universally accept two things: 1) the purpose of music is for human consumption, and 2) the main component of music is pitch. Eagle, a music therapist, believes that in the future, doctors will be able to administer electronic music composed for specific ailments.

Most of the students in the class felt that music is meant for consumption, whether by an audience, performers, or the composer. But one student pointed out that some people believe that the purpose of music is to praise their god. There is a whole swath of music history that backs up this belief, from the birth of Gregorian chant as a means of remembering religious passages to the papal edict mandating the musical reforms of Palestrina to make sung text more intelligible. Many composers have believed that their gifts were divinely given for the praise of their god, though most also did compose secular music as well. The student who brought up this viewpoint came to my office later to continue the discussion. He works at a Christian camp in the summers, and saw how music could draw troubled kids into the fold. But he said that he would often see the kids humming the music later, with no recollection of the attached religious lyrics. Were those kids still using the music to worship, or were they consuming the music for entertainment? During class, I also offered the possibility that even worship music could be regarded as being consumed by the particular congregation. The consumption is not intended for entertainment, but rather for religious enlightenment or to boost the ability to praise.

The main conclusion made in class was that there were many different purposes of music, depending upon the composer/performer’s and the listener’s desires. So I guess Eagle will have to wait longer for his prescription headache music.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Good children's music

I tend to avoid playing the numerous CDs of nursery tunes that we have received over the years, but lately I've been combing through them. I am trying to find decent performances of folk songs, play songs, etc., so the kids can start to sing along. The best one I found was Pete Seeger's Children's Concert at Town Hall. We've been listening to this CD every day for the last two weeks, as the kids love it and I do too. Pete is such an incredible musician, as well as an engaging storyteller. The songs are chosen well, a combination of well-known favorites like "I've been working on the railroad" and "Skip to my Lou" with more obscure English and American tunes and some world music ("Ilka's Bedouin tune," "Fisherman's Song" and "Abiyoyo"). There a little political subversion in the choices of "It could be a wonderful world" and "This land is your land," but as it fits my political outlook I certainly don't mind. What is particularly great about this recording is that it is from a live concert, with active participation of the audience. This encourages my kids to sing along with Pete and the audience, which is absolutely beautiful.

John of UtopianTurtleTop has been blogging about Pete Seeger here and Woody Guthrie here.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

New Class Blogs

You might have noticed that I slightly changed my blogroll, adding a new category and two new blogs. Listening Journal is the blog for my Advanced Musicianship classes (fourth semester aural skills). The students are required to blog about music that they listen to (3 times a week), trying to apply things that we have learned in class. Form and Analysis is surprisingly the blog for my Form and Analysis classes. The students are given specific exercises to analyze and write about. I also require the students to comment on each others analyses, which has already led to some interesting exchanges. There is a lot of overlap between the two classes, as they are both required for sophomore performance majors. And all of the students have been in the same classes with each other for two years, so the dynamic is much different than my First Year Seminar blog.

Feel free to peruse either blog. The Listening Journal is quite free-form, with posts about Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Mahler, Taktakishvili, and John Mayer's Sucker. The students have thus far embraced the notion of expressing their opinions about the music, not only technical details but also emotional impact. The Form and Analysis blog is much more technically oriented, though I still want the students to express their personal interactions with the music. The literature is also very constrained, based on assignments from the Spencer/Temko book I mentioned earlier. Comments and critiques are always welcomed.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Composer's rights

I previously asked about the right of composers to prevent their works from being performed. Commenters (whom Haloscan seems to have deleted) rightly pointed out that the composer's wishes should be respected. Now we get premieres of works that composers hadn't even completed. Are we really so deficient in the amount of musical compositions available that we have to "reconstruct" new ones by long-dead composers? There are always fuzzy lines, such as Mozart's Requiem being finished by his student. But we should not be actively trying to read the minds of composers, as is the case with the Beethoven Adagio. All that existed was "a rough outline of the themes." Beethoven left many sketch books full of half-formed and discarded ideas. He had reasons to discard each of the unrealized ideas, including the Adagio. Why go against his will now, when we have plenty of music by Beethoven, his contemporaries, and the rest of music history up to the present?