Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The evils of hierarchy

It's weird that two very different Scalzi posts have come together for me. First, John tells me that Octavia Butler may have died. This spurred me to get some of her books from the library. I am now reading Xenogenesis, in which some aliens have pointed out two features of the human psyche which are fine on their own but together are a recipe for extinction. Those two features are intelligence and hierarchy. Now John points to a review of his latest book, in which the reviewer talks up the notion of individual choice as the prime driver of history. The Great Man theory of history already gets us into hierarchy by suggesting some people are more important than others in affecting the world. But John kicks it up a notch (Bam!) by talking about his influences in creating choice as the theme of The Ghost Brigades.
My fundamental view of individuals and the importance of the choices they make actually comes from Einstein, via one of my great teachers, Larry McMillin, and his Individual Humanities class at the Webb School of California. Einstein, who thought a great deal on education, wrote that the aim of education should be the creation of "independently acting and thinking individuals who see service to their community as their highest life crisis." Humans are capable of acting individually and making choices; therefore humans should be encouraged to act individually and make choices, and also taught that choosing to make a positive difference in the world through their own actions is a critical thing.

Butler's aliens are not suggesting that community is bad. In fact, they place a high emphasis on family and clan. But they also believe that deferring to a socially-defined leader even when the individual's intellect points in another direction, that is a fatal flaw. I'd be curious to see how current Republicans think about that idea. All the evidence tells us that George Bush is not following conservative principles: nation building, deficit spending, systemic incompetency in carrying out law and order. Thus the individuals who believe in conservative principles should be vehemently against George Bush. Or do they value hierarchy over intelligence?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Cutting out the middle man

Here is a good history of music that is created from human EEG data. I've written previously about a recent competition of this type of composition, but the history goes back to the 60s.

Also showing my ahead-of-the-pack-by-a-year posting style, I wrote about beta blockers and stage fright nine months before the New York Times. (I also gave a presentation on it in 1995 as part of a graduate Brass Pedagogy class.) I'm concerned about the firing of Ms. McCain, unless she is lying about only directing her students to a physician. If she handed out the drug herself, she should have been fired. Propanolol can be very dangerous for anyone with asthma or liver problems. Thus it should only be used under the supervision of a doctor. But if she only suggested the drug and properly directed the students to a doctor, this is completely within the purview of a studio teacher. The exception I could see is if she required her students to see the doctor, which was not suggested in the article.

(via Mind Hacks)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Meme ownership

I call foul! Via John Scalzi, I find out that Vodkapundit is claiming to be the first to list the most-played songs on your iTunes. That would be fine, if I hadn't already thought it up over a year ago. I do like John's idea to limit selections to one per album. Here's my current top 10:

1. Variations on a Rococo Theme - Tchaikovksy, arranged and performed by Sergei Nakariakov
2. Various tracks from Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King soundtrack - Howard Shore
3. Newport Jazz Festival Suite - Duke Ellington
4. O magnum mysterium - Morton Lauridsen, performed by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers
5. Sonatas and Interludes - John Cage (I don't have the performer listed)
6. "Una furtiva lagrima" from The Elixer of Love - Donizetti, arranged and performed by the Three Countertenors
7. Battle Royal - Count Basie Orchestra and Duke Ellington Orchestra
8. Ayre - Golijov, performed by Dawn Upshaw
9. Piano Sonata Op. 31 no. 2 "The Tempest" - Beethoven, performed by Glenn Gould
10. Simple Symphony - Britten, arranged by Colin Matthews and Simon Wright, performed by the Wallace Collection

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Thoughts of Mortality

Yesterday, my father-in-law died. He was a severe alcoholic, and was not an active part of the family for about twenty years. I met him a few times, but only after the disease had sapped his intellect. It has been difficult dealing with this, because of the disconnect between wanting to feel sad about the death of a relative and not feeling sad because the lack of a real relationship. I'm also uncertain how to help my wife, for similar reasons.

Both of us have thought about our own mortality. For me the thoughts came this morning. I was primed by Deborah Stein's talk on Jake Heggie's opera, Dead Man Walking. The sextet at the end of Act I is all about the love and loss felt by the parents of the murdered couple and the mother of the killer. Each set of parents felt a guilt – sharply portrayed by Heggie's music – that they had failed their children. I was already in a state of angst from this experience, when I heard the news. Then, this morning I was sitting in church with my daughter on my lap. Something about the sermon brought me back to the death and the opera. I wondered whether I would let my children down, and then more generally when I would leave my children behind in death. While I am a Deist, I have had the rare fear about a vengeful God with visions of an idiosyncratic Hell. In this Hell I am disembodied in a darkness imbued with pain and sorrow. I remembered this fear this morning, though it has not driven me to a Pascal's Wager yet.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Free Speech

Today as I was waiting for the start of the Interactions of Poetry and Music Symposium (which went very well, if not as highly attended as I would wish), I was gazing at the posters of previous speakers at DePauw. One was for Lynne Cheney, back in 1994. No mention of Dick was made in her bio, instead she was properly billed as the former chair of the NEH. The title of the speech showed that in 1994 Mrs. Cheney believed that political correctness stifled free speech and intellectual engagement on college campuses. I wonder how she feels about current attempts to stifle speech that may offend politically conservative students, or attempts to stifle speech that may offend religiously conservative students.

In related news, DPU's own Ken Bode praises the entrance of the Sierra Club and the ACLU into news broadcasting. I agree, for the reasons Ken lists and for others. The typical news report no longer looks for nuance or "the truth." Instead, both sides are to be presented equally and separately, with limitations of time, money, and education keeping the discussion at an embarassingly rudimentary level. Experts such as the Sierra Club or the ACLU can delve into the details of their pet issues, and are willing to do so. Bias is clearly present, but also clearly answered by allowing the opposition to broadcast their disagreement on their own media, like Fox News. Blogs are already a step in this direction, though they also point out the one danger. Echo chambers can be formed, if the audience neglects important cross-checks with the other side. I have more ideas about that for later.

Friday, February 17, 2006

But which music for Australian Shiraz?

Mind Hacks tells us of a study by Adrian North et al that shows the influence of regional folk music on wine choices.
You go to the supermarket and stop by some shelves offering French and German wine. You buy a bottle of French wine. After going through the checkout you are asked what made you choose that bottle of wine. You say something like "It was the right price", or "I liked the label". Did you notice the French music playing as you took it off the shelf? You probably did. Did it affect your choice of wine? No, you say, it didn't.
That's funny because on the days we play French music nearly 80% of people buying wine from those shelves choose French wine, and on the days we play German music the opposite happens.
Read the rest at Mind Hacks, or in the Nature article.


It's been a full week, with our visiting guests for Music of the 21st Century coming in on Tuesday or Wednesday. I led a question-and-answer convocation with Jake Heggie yesterday, which was fun if a little stressful to prepare for. Jake is very chatty, so it was easy once we were out there. It also helped that we had lunch before the convocation, so I had an idea of what questions Jake would like.

My weekly film screening (Citizen Kane) prevented me from attending the concert last night, so I watched some of the coaching sessions that afternoon to make up for it. But then I had to walk over to the hardware store to get some tree-trimming tools (say that 5 times fast) so my parents could fit their RV in our driveway. My dad came to the screening, though he didn't particularly care for the movie. It was too stylized for him, with all of the odd camera angles and close-ups.

Monday marks a definite shift in both my Film Music class and Theory IV classes. In Film Music we are shifting from analytical theory to history, starting with the birth of cinema (Dec. 28, 1895). In Theory IV we are shifting from formal analysis to harmony, looking at more unusual uses of augmented sixth chords.

And to finish off random thoughts for the week, the new issue of Music Theory Online is up. I haven't had a chance to read the articles yet, but I did want to point out a new feature of MTO. Now it has dynamic listings of jobs, calls-for-papers, events, and other announcements. Thus it is worth visiting between new issues.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Danger's My Middle Name

That spokesman against making college students think, David Horowitz, has come up with a list of the 100 most dangerous college professors.

Here are the Hoosiers most wanted:
George Wolfe, Ball State U.
Caroline Higgins, Earlham College
Harry Targ, Purdue U.

While I am pleased that someone from our consortium (Earlham) has made the list, I'm surprised there isn't anyone from Indiana University listed. And I know plenty of professors here at DePauw that actually challenge their students as well. Heck, yesterday I got my students' questioning whether John Williams' music underscoring the Senate debate in Amistad was bad because it didn't allow the audience to even consider Calhoun's arguments as legitimate.[1] I promoted relativism!

(via Crooked Timber)

[1] James Buhler, "Analytical and Interpretive approaches to Film Music (II): Analysing Interactions of Music and Film," in K. J. Donnelly (ed) Film Music: Critical Approaches

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

This is SOO wrong!

You scored as Oboe. Oboe.
You're an oboe.







French Horn








String Bass












If you were in an orchestra, what instrument would match your personality?
created with QuizFarm.com

(via Terminaldegree, damn her!)

Wednesday Question: The Octatonic Scale

I think Wednesday will be a better day than Friday for the weekly question. On Friday's I'm usually trying to get stuff done before the weekend: grading quizzes and homework, preparing next week's lectures, looking at materials for next week's committee meetings, etc. So I don't have time to blog until later at night, when I'm at home without access to my books or other research tools beyond Google and my own brain. Thus, a switch to Wednesday, as long as it doesn't interfere with my running.

Today's question is about the octatonic scale. As the name implies, this scale has eight different pitch classes, one more than the typical major or minor scale. It is constructed by alternating half steps and whole steps, and requires that one pitch name gets repeated. An example would be: C Db Eb E F# G A Bb. In this case the E is repeated as both a flat and natural. Because the scale can be divided into halves that contain identical intervals, it is called symmetric. Major and minor scales are not symmetric, pointing clearly to the tonic note due to irregular patterns of intervals (Whole - Whole - Half - Whole - Whole - Whole - Half for ascending major). The two half steps are significant landmarks, separated by an unequal number of whole steps (2 versus 3). Thus a half step heard in a piece of music based on the major scale helps us to locate where we are on the scale, in relation to tonic. The octatonic scale does not have significant landmarks, so it does not locate tonic notes well. See my previous post on this.

Another feature of the octatonic scales symmetry is the fact that only three unique collections exist, compared to twelve for the diatonic scales. If we transpose the above octatonic scale up by a half step, we get C# D E F G Ab Bb B. Another half step gives us D Eb F F# G# A B C. Each of these three scales are unique in the collection of notes. But another half step transposition gives Eb E F# G A Bb C Db, which is a reordering of the first scale. Enharmonic spellings, such as switching Eb with D#, don't matter with the octatonic scale which is fundamentally based on the equal tempered system.

The octatonic scale is used in jazz improvisation, called the diminished scale because the form starting with a whole step will spell a diminished seventh chord: C D Eb F Gb Ab A B. The first, third and fifth notes of the scale are the C diminished triad, and the A added makes an A fully-diminished seventh chord.

20th century art composers use the octatonic scale to provide a logical organization of pitches that doesn't evoke tonality but does have an aura of familiarity. There are debates as to how significant the scale is to Stravinsky's music, with claims ranging from the Petroushka chord (C major and F# major together) as a subset of the octatonic scale to Pieter van den Toorn's claims that it abounds in all of Stravinsky's music.[1] Other composers who have used obvious forms of the octatonic scale include Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy, and Olivier Messiaen (who called it one of his modes of limited transposition).

[1] P.C. van den Toorn: The Music of Igor Stravinsky (New Haven, CT, 1983)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Gay music?

While I'm directing people to a DePauw blog, I should also point you to a fascinating post by my colleague, Eric Edberg. Later this week Jake Heggie is coming to campus as the featured composer in our annual Music of the 21st Century festival. Eric will be performing several pieces, and reflects on what Heggie's homosexuality means to him as a fellow gay musician. I am also dubious that gay composers automatically compose tonal music, or even accessible music. Ned Rorem's music does not get the performances it deserves. In the other direction, one of the fathers of American neotonality, George Rochberg, was not gay. Yet his later music is very tonal. But enough of my thoughts. Go read Eric's descriptions of the impacts of homosexuality on his life, which naturally impacts his music.

Class Blog

The Listening Journal is active again, with a new group of students writing about an hour's worth of music every week. Please visit and make comments. Critique the writing, the thoughts, and/or the choice of music. Comments from "outsiders" really encourage the students to take the writing seriously.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Music soothes the savage preemie

An article in the Miami Herald describes a research project from Florida State University. Music therapy was used to encourage sucking in premature babies, an important step in correcting feeding problems. My only issue is with the statement that "FSU has 'the only degree-granting music therapy program in the country that runs a medical program,' says Standley, named in October the 2005-06 Lawton Professor, the highest award given by the faculty." I know that Indiana University has a music therapy program connected to its medical school in Indianapolis, as does the University of Colorado - Boulder. But the article does a good job describing music perception research with infants and the goals of music therapy.

(via my mom)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Something news

I'm trying a new feature on the blog: a built-in RSS feed of music news from NPR and music theory articles from Music Theory Spectrum. It is at the bottom of the page. This is just a trial. Let me know what you think, including suggestions of other RSS feeds to use along with or instead of the two I have picked.

Movie Trivia

Yesterday while watching the "Making of High Noon," I found out that Tex Ritter, the semi-famous cowboy singer/actor and performer of the title ballad "High Noon", was the father of John Ritter, the semi-famous actor of sitcoms and movies-of-the-week. Also, the cinematographer was the father of David Crosby.

On a completely unrelated note, I must recommend Sergei Nakarajkov as an addendum to Jaquandar's list of premiere trumpeters. He has the chops, the technique, the golden tone, and he is very musical. (Sergei, that is. I haven't heard Jaquandar play.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Music evolution?

Today, the interim dean at my wife's cathedral was giving a lecture on transition, as the parish is searching for a new dean and rector. During the lecture he mentioned that many of the displaced musicians from New Orleans have migrated up to Memphis, attracted to its strong Blues tradition. He expects that this influx of New Orleans-style music will forever alter the regional music of Memphis, and hence the entire Blues genre. At the same time, the dearth of older musicians in New Orleans guaranteess that the next generation of Crescent City musicians will not be raised in the same traditions of Creole, Zydeco and Jazz. This may allow some new form of regional music to arise. It is an interesting thesis, one that an enterprising young musicologist could track through the next several decades. Does anyone know of previous studies of this nature, looking at how major catastrophes caused changes in musical traditions?

Friday, February 03, 2006

Friday Question: Animal Music

First, a new (to me) music blog, Divertimenti. It appears to be by an organist/pianist pseudonymously named Dulciana. Her post on tracker organs is really cool.

Now, the Friday Question: Someone was looking for animal music, and found my post of the same name. In fact, another searcher also found that post searching for Philip Dorrell's thoughts on what music is. There is much debate about the evolutionary status of music, which leads many people to look at less-developed animals, especially primates. At the Neurosciences and Music II conference there was an entire session devoted to this question. Presenters showed how birds can adapt their songs to better attract females, seals learn to attract females by imitating their parents (even if the adopted parent is a Maine fisher saying, "Hey, how ya doin'!"), and questioned whether a captive gorilla was drumming or merely hitting a barrel.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Random thoughts

Dave Munger tells us why game music can be annoying.

The Oscar nominations for music have been announced.
Original Score:

"Brokeback Mountain," Gustavo Santaolalla
"The Constant Gardener," Alberto Iglesias
"Memoirs of a Geisha," John Williams
"Munich," John Williams
"Pride & Prejudice," Dario Marianelli

Original Song:
"In the Deep" from "Crash," Kathleen 'Bird' York and Michael Becker
"It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow," Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman and Paul Beauregard
"Travelin' Thru" from "Transamerica," Dolly Parton

Jaquandar has an opinion about this. I don't, as I haven't seen any of these movies (too busy watching older stuff for class).

Wagner the film director

Okay, classes started Monday so I've been a little busy. But I have my book review done (hopefully more about that later) and I have important scheduling things done for the semester, so I can relax a little now. I had my second Film Music class yesterday, and the first real lecture class (Monday was the typical "Syllabus Class" on what to expect, along with a getting-to-know-you activity). It was fun, a discussion of how Richard Wagner was a major influence on the modern film experience. An obvious starting point is how Wagner regarded the ultimate expression of art to be in combinations of all art forms (Gesamtkunstwerk). Movies are an excellent example of that: a combination of literature, drama, visual arts, dance, music, etc. But Wagner was also effective in changing the behavior of audiences, by hiding the musicians and conductor in deep pits, darkening the house and instituting classless seating. These innovations discouraged audiences from talking to each other during productions or being distracted by the antics of the conductor, so they could get immersed in the illusion of the theater. This behavior has carried through to movie theaters, carried to even bigger terms with surround sound systems to envelope the audience in the sound environment of the film.

Tonight is the first weekly class screening, King Kong. No, not the Peter Jackson version in theaters now, but rather the original 1933 production with the fabulous Max Steiner score. Here is the schedule for the rest of the semester, in case you want to watch along with us:

High Noon, Citizen Kane, The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Ben Hur, Psycho, E.T., The Mission, Run Lola Run, and The Red Violin.