Monday, April 24, 2006

Kneeling, authority, and delicate sounds

George Hunka, playwright and host of Superfluities, has a fabulous interview with Marilyn Nonken. Or rather, a fabuluous first part of an interview, which I expect to continuous in fabulosity for its last two parts. Physical gesture is something that is neglected too often in instrumental performance, but Marilyn's comments show how effective these gestures can be. I remember attending a recital by Stephen Burns, shortly after he had won the Maurice Andre International Trumpet Competition. He made gestures at the end of each passage that followed the tone of the music. Slowly descending trumpet accompanied by a soulful look on his face for gentle adagios, wide-open arms and a triumphant, powerful look to end flourishes. I was torn, on one hand feeling that his gestures were "mere theatrics." On the other hand, the physical gestures moved me, allowing me to continue feeling the musical content. And why are theatrics so bad that they are "mere" in the first place? I've seen instances in young vocalists where the theatrics are a poor substitution for missing musicality. But as long as the musical authority (another excellent point Ms. Nonken makes) is there, the gestures can take the performance to yet another level.

Friday, April 21, 2006

How much should we hear?

Saxophonist extraordinaire Brian Sacawa has an interesting post about the latest Take A Friend To Orchestra Month. He quotes Margaret Koscielny on the overwhelming demands classical music can make on listeners:
It's another thing entirely to face an orchestra and listen attentively for 90 minutes or more. I can't honestly say that I usually enjoy the classical concert experience as fully as a movie or highly engaging (lots of patter) pops concert.

"If it feels like work for me, how can it be that enticing (i.e., generate repeat attendances) for most newbies?"

I think the real problem is that many people have the wrong expectations of how much they should absorb and understand in a single hearing of art music. Just as a great piece of literature demands multiple readings to understand all of the layers of meaning and reference; or a great painting demands multiple viewings to catch the subtleties of dimension, color, and brush stroke; many pieces of art music demand multiple listenings to perceive all of the formal relationships, topical signifiers, orchestrational colors, text painting, et al. These sources of overwhelming information reward repeated listenings, making every listening exciting. But people used to more one-dimensional art can be turned off, because they are used to comprehending everything about the art in one experience. Feelings of inadequacy and frustration, or judgments of emotionless and irrelevant content are understandably common when listening from this perspective. A simple solution to this problem is to encourage your friend to listen to a recording of the music before taking them to the concert. Talk to them about multiple listenings, and ask what was different about this performance, both because of the live environment and because of the newer expectations from the previous listening.

Along with the problem of single vs. multiple hearings, classical newbies also face the problem of "it's a masterpiece, but I don't like it." But I'll write about that later.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Clarinet in the news

I've received over forty visits today from people searching for musical licorice sticks. They are attracted to my post on the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet. Any ideas why so many people are interested in this? I searched Google news with no luck, and I don't think Lil' Ricki has been big in the news lately.

Performance as Analysis

In comments to a Crooked Timber post on analytical philosophers, Seth Edenbaum criticizes Derrida for attempting to create literary art at the same time he was analyzing literature.
Derrida was trying to “perform” language while analyzing it.
If my lawyer ever tried to be a legal philsopher while defending my case, I’d fire him. You can’t be an actor and a theater critic at the same time.

Reading this reminded me of an attempt to perform music analysis and a claim that all performances are analyses, and all analyses are performances.

First is Hans Keller's Functional Analysis. Keller believed that each musical piece is controlled by a 'basic idea,' a cellular motive, somewhat related to Schoenberg's concept of Grundgestalt. His goal was to identify that basic idea and show how it was transformed to produce the entire work. The unusual aspect was his idea to perform the analyses. From the Grove Music Online article on Analysis (II, 1945-1975):

In 1957 Keller took an even bolder step than Schenker had when abandoning the word for the graph: Keller abandoned word and graph for sound, by preparing an analytical score which demonstrated what he saw as the background unities of Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor k421/417b entirely in musical sound. Keller’s method involved composing a score, for the same forces as the work under analysis, in which passages of the original are interspersed with aural demonstrations of the links between themes. He claimed for this the advantages that it avoided the transition between musical and verbal thought, that the through-composition of the analytical score led along purely musical lines, and that the subjectiveness of verbal description was eliminated. Several such analyses were prepared and broadcast in Britain and on the Continent, but none of Keller’s scores was published until much later (1985, 1995).

To the second association I had, we turn to David Lewin's seminal article in Music Perception, "Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes of Perception" (1986, Vol. 3, No. 4). Lewin spends much of the article describing an application of Husserl's theories of phenomenology to music theory, which is fascinating in its own right. But I'm moving to Part V of the article, "Perception and the Productive Modes of Behavior." During this section Lewin argues that the creation of music, whether performance or composition, is "a mode of musical perception," a reaction to previous experiences with music. So Beethoven's c Minor Piano Concerto is a response to [an analysis of?] Mozart's c minor Concerto (p. 382). Lewin then suggests that critical statements can also be performances, inspired by Jonathan Culler's views on poetry and criticisms of Bloom (The Pursuit of Signs, 1981).

Edenbaum could justly point out that Lewin is using Derrida's views of literature, which Edenbaum is criticizing in the first place. But there is something appealing about the idea that the best descriptions of music should be musical. There are plenty of quotes about music starting where words fail, and of the difficulty in writing about music. I certainly find it difficult to lecture about music without a piano nearby to use in illustrating points. I use music to explain music. Does that make my whole lecture musical?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Perfection vs. Improvisation?

Lately I've been reading of concerns that Lost is being plotted one episode at a time rather than with a long-range story planned. Yet this off-the-cuff creation is celebrated in jazz improvisation. I have noticed a trend in the arts towards perfection over spontaneity. Recordings and computer-generated music have made listeners used to note-perfect performances, so that even one misplayed pitch can ruin their enjoyment. This makes performers timid, afraid of taking chances that could increase the risk of mistakes. I think this has also bled over into improvisation, both in music and in drama. Attempts to have improvised TV shows have been middling at best, and held only to comedies (The Bonnie Hunt Show, Sons and Daughters, What's My Line?). Likewise, musical improv seems to be only acceptable in jazz and blues. Dramatic shows, such as Lost, cannot be improvised or plotted 1-2 shows ahead of shooting, because audiences are also afraid. Performers are afraid of making technical mistakes, audiences are afraid of making emotional mistakes. Invest in a world that hasn't been fully formed, and run the risk of being disappointed at the end. Perhaps we all need to take more chances. Risk ruining a performance for the opportunity to create sublime art. Risk wasting fifty hours of your life on an off-the-cuff TV show that could end in a way that you and the creators never imagined.

Monday, April 17, 2006

School Music Ensembles

Spurred by various discussions within and without DePauw, I've been thinking alot about music ensembles and the training of professional musicians. Eric has several posts about the dearth of traditional jobs for musicians, with excellent ideas on how that should impact music education. I also wonder about the general format of Band, Orchestra, Choir as the main performance venues for students in secondary and post-secondary education. While I loved performing in those groups as a student, I also recognize that hardly any of my performing since college has been in one of those formats. I play in a variety of chamber groups, both traditional and non-tradition. Brass quartets and quintets, jazz combos, rock bands, trumpet with string trios or quartets, trumpet with vocal soloists or chamber choirs, trumpet with piano or organ, these are the gigs that are both available and profitable. Alex Ross and Lisa Hirsch have been discussing escalating ticket prices for professional orchestras, and it is somewhat rare to find the organization or individual who can afford to hire a large ensemble for ceremonies or entertainment. (Perhaps becoming more rare as wealth gets ever concentrated among small numbers of people.) However, many people can afford to hire 1-5 musicians for their musical needs. Thus we should be focusing the training of our pre-professional students on those chamber performance venues. Here at DePauw, performance majors are required to take four semesters of chamber music, with no specifications as to genre. But each student (performance or otherwise) is required to be in at least one large ensemble each semester on campus, double the amount of chamber experience. These students also only perform two recitals during their time, plus about four chamber recitals. I'd like to see more performances of shorter length, in a variety of venues, in a variety of ensemble sizes. Require the students to provide ceremonial music for various campus organizations (especially our overwhelming fraternity/sorority presence). Give 15-minute concerts in the cafeterias and commons.

I don't want to do away with large ensembles. They provide an excellent learning experience through rehearsals with professional conductors. These conductors teaching musicality in ways that can be far more effective than private lessons or classrooms. The exposure to important music literature, the glorious sounds that are created, all these are important purposes of large ensembles. But perhaps large ensembles could receive a little less emphasis, in favor of chamber music. What do you think?

Blog progeny

I'm so excited that some of my students have caught the Web 2.0 bug. One of my students is blogging about his experiences in Barcelona for the semester. Another has posted pictures from his trip to India in January. He studied tabla for a month in Chennai.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Call for Ears

Another request for participants from those crazy Dutch music cognition researchers:

Can we borrow your ears?

We would like to invite you to partake in a listening experiment on timing and tempo in music using fragments from the Rock, Jazz and Classical repertoire.

All you need is a computer with a broadband internet connection, the ability to playback audio, and -of course- an interest in music. To access the experiment, please follow the link:

Five Amazon Gift Certificates will be raffled among all who respond before 15 April 2006.

Thanks in advance for your time and ears!

Music Cognition Group, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Nasty reviews

Kieran Healy has written about an interesting competition to find the best mean review. He offers his own candidate, Philip Larkin.
For sheer mean-spirited, grossly unfair (not to say misguided) but nevertheless well-written and funny attacks on worthy targets, you can’t beat Philip Larkin’s criticism of modernist Jazz, especially his stuff on John Coltrane and Miles Davis. He thought Coltrane was “possessed continually by an almost Scandinavian unloveliness.” For example, here he is reviewing A Love Supreme:
It is of course absurd to suggest he can’t play his instrument: the rapidity of his fingering alone dispels that notion. It would be juster to question whether he knows what to do with it now that he can play it. His solos seem to me to bear the same relation to proper jazz solos as those drawings of running dogs, showing their legs in all positions so that they appear to have about fifty of them, have to real drawings. Once, they are amusing and even instructive. But the whole point of drawing is choosing the right line, not drawing fifty alternatives. Again, Coltrane’s choice and treatment of themes is hypnotic, repetitive, monotonous: he will rock backwards and forwards between two chords for five minutes, or pull a tune to pieces like someone subtracting petals from a flower. Apart from the periodic lashing of himself into a frenzy, it is hard to attach any particular emotional importance to his work.

And on Miles Davis:

He had several manners: the dead muzzled slow stuff, the sour yelping fast stuff, and the sonorous theatrical arranged stuff, and I disliked them all.

In comments, I started to formulate a reason to celebrate these mean reviews. Terry Teachout created an index to explore one's artistic tastes. I think that reading a mean review also helps to explore the personal aesthetic world. Disagreement with the review can be visceral or intellectual, which helps to pinpoint where the aesthetic view resides. Intellectually, I agree with the points of Kieran's review of Cryptonomicon, yet I enjoyed the book. This tells me that my pleasure was not based on admiration of craftmanship, but on a more emotional level. An agreement with the mean review can cause the reader to be uncomfortable, producing thoughts such as "well, that's a little strong, isn't it." Thus the reader finds out the intensity of his/her likes and dislikes.

These reactions are only possible if the initiating review is worded strongly. It helps if the review is bad, in the sense of creating a false clarity. Nuance waters down the effect, even if it is more honest. Thus, bring on the mean reviews, I say. As long as they aren't about me.

World Music Extreme

As part of the International Conference on Auditory Display, the Institute of Contemporary Arts London is hosting a concert called "Global Music - The World by Ear." Like a previous concert I wrote about, composers are asked to use an existing set of data on "190 countries with geographical data (capital location, area), population numbers, and is extended by several basic social indicators such as GDP, access to sanitation and drinking water, and life expectancy"
to generate sonifications. I think it is excellent that they call these works "sonifications" rather than compositions, even though there is clearly artistic creativity involved. The focus is on how to create an aural impression of the data, much in the same way a graph creates a visual impression. Musical considerations are secondary, so sonification = graph as composition = painting.

The deadline for submissions has been extended to the end of the month, so get cracking! Details follow.
The 'Global Music - The World by Ear' Concert will take place on June 21st, 2006, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London, as part of the International Conference on Auditory Display in London from 20-23 June 2006. It is open to the general public and will be promoted and listed by the ICA.

The concert program will be sonifications based on global data. A basic dataset serving as a starting point for these sonifications is provided and you are invited to participate by submitting a piece of music driven by this data and your chosen additions to it.

Werner Pirchner, Ein halbes Doppelalbum, 1973: "The military costs every person still alive roughly as much as half a kilogram of bread per day."

Global data are ubiquitous - one finds them in every newspaper, and they cover a range of themes, from global warming to increasing poverty, from individual purchasing power to the ageing of the world's population. Obviously these data are of a social nature: They describe specific aspects (e.g. ecological or economic) of the environment in which societies exist, which taken together determine culture, i.e. the way people live.

Rising awareness of these global interdependencies has led both to fear and concerns (e.g. captured in the notion of the risk society, see Beck 1986, Giddens 1990, 1999), as well as hopes for eventual positive consequences of globalisation. Along with developments like the scientisation of politics (see Drori et al 2003), this growing understanding of global issues has re-defined the context of the political discourse in modern societies: As modern societies claim to steer their own course based on self-observation by means of data, an information feedback loop is realised.

Alternative choices of data that are important to consider, which data should be set in relation to each other, and a consideration of how to perceptualise these data choices meaningfully can enrich this discourse.

Closing the feedback loop by informing society about its current state and its development is a task that both scientists and artists have responded to, and this is the key point of this call:

* You can contribute to the discourse by perceptualising aspects of world societal developments,
* search for data that concern interesting questions, and devise strategies for investigating them, and
* demonstrate that sound can communicate information in an accessible way for the general public.

As a common reference point, we have compiled a basic dataset which includes 190 countries with geographical data (capital location, area), population numbers, and is extended by several basic social indicators such as GDP, access to sanitation and drinking water, and life expectancy.

Using this reference dataset is mandatory: All submissions must include countries, capital locations, population and area data. This dataset can be extended with extra dimensions, and in fact this is strongly encouraged; the extensions included in the reference dataset (such as GDP) are given as examples only.

Examples of a larger number of interesting extensions can be found in the extended version of the basic dataset (see links in section Data Background and Resources below).

Easily accessible sources for possible extensions to the dataset are also given in the Resources section; if you need advice on these, please feel free to ask us: icad.concert AT

Submissions should last between 3-10 minutes.

Likely Questions
Missing values for some countries and some dimensions are to be expected, and this is a common problem in social data. Pragmatic handling of some sort will be necessary here.

The countries/regions represented have very different sizes and population numbers; one result we hope for is that very different strategies for representing these frame dimensions will be applied in the submissions.

Our reference data set is a snapshot of the year 2005; participants may choose to introduce time and to explore development issues.

If you are unsure whether your idea for a submission would comply with the rules, please feel free to ask us:

Data Background and Resources
The reference datasets have been compiled from official UN statistics and the CIA World Factbook (links below).

Data files have been updated! (see website for more details)


Beck, Ulrich (1986): Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne. Frankfurt am Main. English edition: 1992, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi.

Drori, Gili S., John W. Meyer, Francisco O. Ramirez, Evan Schofer (2003): Science in the Modern World Polity: Institutionalization and Globalization. Stanford.

Giddens, Anthony (1990): The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford.

Giddens, Anthony (1999) : Runaway World. A series of lectures on globalisation for the BBC, available [here]

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

When they pry the clickwheel from my cold dead hands

Cognitive Daily's latest casual research was about the iPod volume limitator recently offered by Apple. They found that most people did not plan to download the safety software, and in fact this trend ran counter to other safe practices, wearing bike helmets as the indicator.

The day after Apple made this announcement about the optional safety feature, there was a discussion of its merits on the Auditory email list. The limitator assumes everyone uses the standard-issue earbuds, as different earbuds or headphones can change the output drastically. Likewise, the methods of recording and encoding the music will affect the actual dB output. Here is a good article on the problem, which started way back with the Walkman.

I know that I don't plan to download the volume limitation software, but I have been more conscious of what volume I set my iPod at. I try not to go past halfway on the bar, with the exception being when I am biking on a windy day past a construction site during a thunder storm as a fire engine drives by.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Wired conductors

From NPR last weekend, Keith Lockhart was wired for physiological measurements as he conducts the Boston Pops last weekend. 5 musicians will also be measured, and 50 members of the audience. Dan Levitin of McGill University is conducting (heh) this study, in hopes to find agreements with emotion theory. Lockhart is conducting the overture from the Marriage of Figaro and Robert Kapilow's settings of Dr. Seuss stories for soprano and boy soprano (Green Eggs and Ham) or soprano and girl soprano (Gertrude McFuzz) with the orchestra. The results should be interesting.

Boston Globe article here.