Saturday, July 30, 2005

Friday iChing

I’ve been wrestling with how to prioritize my time. Raising my children to be good people, creating meaningful scholarship, mentoring my students, having fun, developing my relationship with my wife, developing my relationships with my family and friends, personal betterment (physical, spiritual, mental, emotional). Should I be concerned with leaving a legacy, and if so, what kind? This is the incredibly amorphous question I pose to iChing this week.

Covering: "If I could be with You One Hour Tonight," Count Basie & His Orchestra, The Essential Count Basie Vol.1
Crossing: Georges Bizet's Carmen Suite No. 1: Entr'acte (Act IV), Herbert von Karajan; Philharmonia Orchestra
Crown: "The Prophecy," Howard Shore, The Lord Of The Rings - The Fellowship Of The Ring
Root: Béla Bartók's En plein air - #2 "Sons de la nuit," Claude Helffer
Past: Richard Wagner's "Den Bronnen, den uns Wolfram nannte" from Tannhäuser
Future: "When Your Lover Has Gone," Sarah Vaughan, How Long Has This Been Going On?
Questioner: "City Nights," Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble, New Stories
House: Aaron Copland's Rodeo - 4. "Hoe-Down," Erich Kunzel / Cincinnati Pops
Inside: Morten Lauridsen's O magnum mysterium Robert Shaw Festival & Chamber Singers
Outcome: Robert Schumann's Carnaval: 12. "Chopin," Claudio Arrau

Covering is obvious: who should I be with for an hour tonight?
Crossing: Don José is obsessed with Carmen, forsaking his job for his personal lusts. Yeah, that’s conflict.
Crown: Hmm, the best is a quest to save the world? A little more than I had planned to take on…
Sounds of the night, or is it that the important causes of this situation are “In Plain Air,” in plain sight? I’ll come back to this.
Wolfram sang of unattainable love, staying with the status quo that Tannhäuser shatters later in the song contest. Perhaps my past has been too careful.
When my lover has gone, what will I do? My children will hopefully still be around, as would the fruits of my professional career. Of course, it is statistically likely that when my lover has gone, I will already be dead, so this could be about legacy.
City Nights is a piece by college friends. Am I tempted by the bright lights of the big city?
My wife has shown fine humor at my musings, though she hasn’t thrown a Hoe-Down. Just keep dancing!
Too cute, my hopes and fears are a great mystery. And the final outcome is either a big Carnival, me imitating someone else (or emulating someone else), or I'm going wacky like Schumann. I think the important causes are sounds of the night, my night-time musings.

Much to think about.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Beethoven's Anvil

William Benzon is a cognitive scientist and jazz trumpeter. His book, Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, is a great introduction to the psychology of music. The sources are well-researched, and Benzon makes clear distinctions between speculative theory and observed facts. This is particularly important, given his bias towards Evolutionary Psychology. Part of the book is an effort to determine why humans evolved to "musick" – Benzon's general term for all activities involving music: listening, performing, composing, dancing, etc. – with several theories presented and tied to observed phenomenon from anthropology, brain scans, and linguistics. But even if you think EP is a load of bunk, the preliminary steps Benzon makes are interesting in their own right. He discusses the triune and split-brain models of the mind, Manfred Clynes' Sentics, rhythm perception, melody perception, auditory streaming, and the creative process.

Benzon has a very interesting thesis that "music is a medium through which individual brains are coupled together in shared activity." (p. 23) While there are many activities that require social interactions between individuals, music is special with its rhythmic component. Repeated rhythmic patterns have been shown to entrain biological functions, including cognitive functions. And as music allows many people to take part in the entrainment, either as performers or as listeners, it is particularly effective in forming cohesive social bonds. This is his favorite theory of musical EP, that music evolved as a means of allowing humans to bond in larger and larger groups (demes and macrodemes, as termed by Linnda Caporeal.)

Benzon tells engaging stories of music-making, and explains the science aspects very clearly yet thoroughly. I think it is too geared to social psychology for me to adopt it as a classroom text, but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the intersections of music and psychology.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dear Mr. Postman...

On Sunday I received an email from George Hanson, criticizing my post about Mikhael Rawls. First, George takes issue with the label, 'countertenor.'
First, the term countertenor is very inexact, and is often used as a catch-all for many different voice types or fachs.  Countertenor is perhaps most appropriate for male singers who use falsetto (often without vibrato) to sing early or baroque music.  Many singers -- who perform operatic repertoire, i.e. David Daniels -- prefer the designation male alto.  The distinction is well deserved.

George is absolutely correct that there are different labels for different types of male sopranists, as shown by this chart at Trrill. But Nick points out that labels have been fluid in the last 100 years, so 'countertenor' has become acceptable for any male voice singing in the alto range, despite the repertoire, style, or means of singing. Anglican/Episcopalian Men and Boy choirs call their male falsettists 'countertenors,' whether they are performing Monteverdi or Mauridsen. And most importantly, Mikhael refers to himself as a countertenor, so we should respect his opinion in this.

George's other quibble is with my suggestion that countertenors would not blend well with female mezzos. I am happy to accept that I could be wrong in this. I am not trained as a choir director. My own experiences in choir are limited to being a boy soprano in a boy's choir until I was 14, and singing as a baritone in my high school choir. The timbres I experienced in these two choirs were very different, something that I thought a choir director may want to avoid if possible. In Mikhael's case, he was denied singing in the All-State Choir, a group that probably only rehearses for one or two weeks before performing. With such limited time, blending becomes even more of a challenge so auditions may be looking for homogenity in timbre rather than for distinctively strong voices. But again, IANACD. What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Any Good Carnival Has Llamas

The Llama Butchers are hosting this week's Carnival of Music.
Sorry for the delay, I was distracted by theories of phenomenology, cornetti, timbre cognition, and Kind of Blue. I'll be putting up several posts this week on Virtual Listeners and Virtual Composers, Beethoven's Anvil, a response to my post on the Texas Countertenor, and a new installment of the iChing.

I'll be hosting next week's Carnival, so send those entries to me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Episkey! Episkey!

I finished the latest Harry Potter book last night. I think it is the best of the series yet, with the kids acting like mature-yet-realistic teenagers and the grownups actually listening to the kids. I'm still pondering about the significance of the biggest plot point, thinking that perhaps things aren't as they seem. But then again,
Want to Get Sorted?

I'm a Ravenclaw!

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Podcast Carnival


Prent Rodgers, the master of the 30-second soundbite, has posted this week's Carnival of Music, so go enjoy the rides.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Off to the Movies!

Alert! Movie spoilers lie ahead.

Last night the whole family packed into the minivan and went to a local drive-in. It's a step back through time, where kids in PJs snuggle up with their parents to watch a fine moral film about four superheroes that kick the bejeesus out of a supervillain. I actually thought The Fantastic Four was well done, except for the machine that could turn off their powers. If Reed could make it once, why not redo it with more power so Ben could transform back and forth whenever needed? Part of the classic tragedy of the Thing is that he has no way to turn back to normal, which is somewhat lost with this plotline.

The second movie of the night was Mr. and Mrs. Smith. This was much less believable. A married couple cannot flip back and forth from trying to kill each other to saving each other, with very little emotional cost. And the idea that (MAJOR SPOILERS HERE)

the two assassination companies had set up the Tank hit in a Byzantine way to get rid of two employees who were too close is ludicrous. If they wanted to get rid of John and Jane, each company could plant a bomb in their respective office, or pay one of the other employees to shoot them, or send a whole squadron after the house, which is what they ended up doing anyway after the targets were on alert. And if these companies are so big and powerful, the ending should not have been the ending. The Smiths should still be running, not having another session with the same marriage counselor.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

How to teach inversions

Marcus Maroney has a blistering reply to Kyle Gann's proposal to do away with figured bass. I completely agree with Marcus, but teaching a brief introduction to Hindemith's harmonic theory today reminded me of another way to teach inversions.

Hindemith divided all possible chords into six categories:

I - chords with no seconds, sevenths, or tritones (only major or minor triads)
II - chords with tritones, but no minor seconds or major sevenths (dominant sevenths and half-diminished sevenths, some secundal chords)
III - chords with no tritones, but does have seconds or sevenths (or both) (lots of options)
IV - chords with tritones and minor seconds or major sevenths (lots of options)
V - chords with no tritones but indetermininate root (augmented triad and quartal chord)
VI - chords with predominant tritones, indeterminate roots (diminished triad, fully diminished seventh chord)

Within each category except V and VI, there are subdivisions for inversion: Root position = 1, any inversion = 2. (Hindemith had a theory of interval roots that he used to identify roots of chords, which is only confusing with very complex chords.)

I think Kyle would like this system, as it has only two categories to remember for inversion, and no pesky figured bass symbols, simply "1" or "2". Unfortunately, it does nothing to show the dissonance of a 4/2 chord (seventh chord in third inversion) as compared to a 6/5 or 4/3 inversion. Kyle gets all worked up that the second inversion triad is significantly different from the first inversion triad, but the second inversion seventh chord is not. I disagree, as a V 4/3 chord can have an upwardly resolving seventh that the V 6/5 never could (in functional tonal music). But more importantly, these inversions are distinctly different from the third inversion, which has very specific rules of resolution, just like the second inversion triad.

As for using figured bass instead of "1", "2" and "3", figured bass allows indications of many things besides chord inversions. It indicates chromatic alterations in a chord, including the ever-important Ti in minor keys that first-years often forget. Figured bass also provides an easy way of indicating all the different types of suspensions -- including double and triple suspensions and retardations -- and can be used to describe types of sequences (see the new Laitz text for this). What other method of chord labelling provides such power and is more memorable (7th inversions are simply counting down from 7: 7, 6/5, 4/3, 2; all figured bass is about describing intervals up from the bass note)?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Tripping on Webber?

My brother sent me a New York Times article about musical hallucinations. I was going to blog about it in detail, but BrainBlog and Mind Hacks have beat me to the punch. I would be curious to see how these hallucinations compare to subjective tinnitus, as both are about the sensation of sound without physical cause.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

A new Carnival's in town

The blogosphere has several carnivals touring around. Here is a pretty comprehensive list of them, though it is missing one of the newest carnival's, the Carnival of Music. What is a blogospherical carnival, you may ask. Bora Zivkovic of Science and Politics provides both a definition and some suggestions on how to successfully run a carnival: "a) have a clearly stated purpose, b) appear with predictable regularity, c) rotate editors, d) have a homepage and archives, and e) have more than one person doing heavy lifting."

The Carnival of Music is starting pretty slowly, but it is doing everything correctly. The purpose is clear: to feature interesting posts on any facet of music. The Carnival has been appearing every week on Monday, with the next one to appear at The Fredösphere in two days. Thus it is predictable. After the first three editions by TexasBestGrok, there have been a rotation of editors, from Owlish Mutterings to And What Next, with future carnivals to be hosted by Podcast Bumper Music, Llama Butchers, and yours truly.* There is a homepage with links to the older editions. That leaves the final requirement. JohnL did the first and most important part of heavy lifting, now it is up to others to help (remember, use your legs - save your back).

I support the idea of building the sense of community of the bløgösphère, especially between different genres of music. I certainly can learn from experts in pop, rock, blues, world music, etc., and I like to think that they would find my musings interesting as well. If you agree, inform the weekly carnival host of your favorite posts (whether written by you or read by you), and volunteer to host a carnival. Fred wants submissions by Sunday noon for this next week's Carnival, so get cracking!

*Okay, now I have "Truly Scrumptious" going through my head, damned earworm. I'm fighting it by remembering the quodlibet version instead of the original.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Embrace the artificial

Over at A Monk's Musical Musings, Hucbald has been showing the physical generation of various chords in tonal progressions. I found myself writing a very long comment in one of his posts, and decided to subject all of my readers to a comprehensive look at this question. Theorists through the centuries have attempted to prove that tonality is the ultimate language of music because tonality is based upon natural principles of physics and psychology. The psychology side is rather messy, so I will wait to address that one.

The physical side comes from claims that tonality is based upon the harmonic series. Since the first sixteen harmonics can make the major scale (we'll ignore harmonics 7 and 14 right now) from the tonic/fundamental, this must mean that the major scale has special significance, something that resonates right from the very nature of the notes played by acoustical instruments.

Notice that this means of generation says nothing about the minor scale (any of the three). For Helmholtz, this means that minor keys are inferior to major keys, as they are distortions from the pure generation. Rameau tried to generate the minor scale from two different fundamentals, called the "co-generation" theory. This still makes the minor scale a second class citizen to the major scale, since it requires help from a second note to generate all of its notes. Riemann believed in "undertones", patterns of frequencies that follow the same pattern as the harmonic series except going down from the fundamental instead of up. (Hucbald mentions one of his teachers, so I'm pulling out Harrison, one of my History-of-Theory teachers.) With this new series, the minor scale can be generated. However, undertones have no physical basis, despite Riemann's claims of having heard them.

The problem is that in practice, minor keys are not treated as inferior to major keys by tonal composers, and indeed are not preferenced in perception/cognition studies either. All attempts to physically generate the scale are unsatisfactory at best, and plain wacko at worst. So, when practice conflicts with theory, the theory must be questioned. (Right, PZ?) I say that we should embrace the fact that such a complex and vigorous language is the result of artifice rather than from the happenstances of physics. Long live art!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

How to treat an enemy

Like everyone, I was shocked and saddened to hear about the bomb attacks in London today. I send my condolences to anyone personally affected by today's violence. Naturally, there was a lot of coverage of the attacks on NPR and the BBC today, the two news sources on Public Radio that I listen to while commuting to Bloomington. In all the coverage, there were many clips of the statements by George Bush and Tony Blair from the G8 conference. These statements had me thinking about the proper way to treat or talk about an enemy.

On one hand, we as a society do not want to condone such acts of violence. We don't want any groups to think that committing terrorism will help them, otherwise groups may be encouraged to act violently to advance their cause. Therefore the acts should be strongly condemned, which usually involves condemning the terrorist groups.

On the other hand, these terrorist groups consist of people, not monsters. They are desperate and misguided, but it seems to me that most such groups are trying improve their world, not destroy it. (I admit that I could be quite naive about this, and welcome any corrections.) The best way to stop people from acting out of desparation is to give them another means of affecting change. This means communicating with these people, and they won't want to talk to governments that characterize them as inhuman: monsters, killers, no moral values, etc.

Perhaps the Christian ideal of "hating the sin, loving the sinner" should be used when talking about terrorist acts. Condemn the acts, and make clear that those involved will be arrested and charged. But also acknowledge that the terrorists were desparate because of A, B, and C. Maybe nothing can be done about A, B, and C, but it is more truthful than saying that the terrorists only want to "spread an ideology of hate."

Of course, the danger is that acknowledging the terrorists' complaints may be exactly what the terrorists wanted to achieve, so their terrorist acts would be rewarded, encouraging further terrorism. How can we break the cycle of violence, and keep from treating the terrorists as things, rather than people?

Update: John McGowan writes about this much more completely and cogently than I can, over at Michael Bérubé's blog.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Religious preferences?

Given the recent decision by the UCC to bless same-sex marriages, I became curious about the legal issues around the freedom to practice one's religion. After all, marriage is considered to be a very important part of most religions, whether it is a sacrament or only of ceremonial significance. Federal law seems to be very fuzzy in this regard. While the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion, various Supreme Court decisions have set precedent that the Federal government may limit religious actions and rituals if it has compelling reasons to do so. So it may be possible that the Defense of Marriage Act could be ruled constitutional because the government has some compelling reason. It is unclear to me what the exact definition of "compelling reasons" is, I'd appreciate any pointers.

Moving to my state of Indiana, Article 1, Section 4 of the state constitution states that "No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship; and no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent." Indiana also has a law against same-sex marriage, which would seem to run counter to this constitutional right. The law gives preference to religions that ban same-sex marriage over religions that allow same-sex marriage, by legalizing one practice but making the other illegal.

(By the way, notice the wording of Article 1, Section 2. This Section was amended in 1984, and I'm guessing "ALMIGHTY GOD" was shoe-horned in at this point, much like "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1963, fifty years after it had been written.)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Music on the brain

Dave Munger has written two posts about music in his Cognitive Daily blog. Music and IQ relates recent research on whether musical training improves intelligence (the so-called Mozart Effect). Glenn Schellenberg presented much of this research at the Leipzig conference, making the very convincing case that music is a special case in intellectual development. By comparing music lessons with drama lessons, Schellenberg handles the objection that any extra-curricular activity would help. There is a big "But" in this study, though. The best predictor of future academic performance for grade-school kids is not IQ or current grades, but their social behavior. And acting lessons were the only activity that improved adaptive social behavior.

Some insight into how we develop preferences shows a study that found that the perception of familiarity is more important than actual familiarity on liking a piece of music. Listeners heard several pieces of classical music, followed by an hour-long pause. Then a randomized mix of new excerpts and the previous excerpts were played. The listeners indicated whether they liked each excerpt, and whether they had heard the excerpt before. They were much more likely to like the piece if they thought they heard it before, even when they hadn't. This supports the hypothesis that we like things that we are certain about, not things that create uncertainty.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy July 4th

I take this day to celebrate the great accomplishments that this country has achieved, and to renew my resolve to fix the problems that currently afflict my homeland.

Great accomplishments: The Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence, the peaceful transition from one administration to the next every four or eight years, our great universities/orchestras/museums, the abolishment of the class system.

Current problems: Sacrificing freedom because we're afraid, equating money with happiness, the politicization of religon/education/art/morality, the destruction of socio-economic mobility.

Cudos to Spain, Canada, and the United Church of Christ (my parents' church) for promoting equality and justice. The latter is a good example of a religion that is not afraid to re-examine its morality, not surprising for the religious inheritors of Ives.