Thursday, August 31, 2006

Music Cognition links

Dave Munger has a music cognition post up at Cognitive Daily. You can read my take on it in the comments, I won't bother repeating myself here.

And a fellow Lawrence alum has started an online journal on music cognition called Sound and Mind. This is an offshoot of Am Steg, an online music theory site run by Kris Shaffer and Devin Burke. When Am Steg started, the servers were overwhelmed by all the theorists trying to access an interview with Ian Quinn. Hopefully things are running more smoothly now.

The aftermath

Eric has put up a post with his quick reactions to the concert I mentioned yesterday. There are also over 20 comments by students and faculty who were at the concert. And yes, those were my kids who were "quite distracting."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Experimental performance

Tonight Eric Edberg, my colleague and fellow blogger, experimented with a new/old way of performing classical music. I'll let him describe the goals:
Ever think classical concerts are too formal and have too many intimidating rules? Could one of the reasons classical audiences are growing older and smaller be that the whole stuffy ambience, in which newcomers are shamed if they do something natural like clap between movements or during a movement, be part of the problem? (Did you know that before the 20th century, audiences clapped between movements and even during them, and composers like Mozart encouraged it?)
Stephanie Gurga (a recent SoM grad and brilliant pianist) and I think so. So we're trying an experiment. To make the atmosphere unintimidating, we're going to dress very casually in Wednesday evening's recital. I'm wearing jeans.
And the usual rules of audience deportment are suspended for one night. Clap between movements (well, there's only one multi-movement piece). Clap after a good lick, or shout out an "amen" or a "boo." Dance in the aisles or in front of the stage.
I made a deal with my first-year seminar class (which is looking at the future of classical music): I'll wear jeans and make the concert as fun as possible if they'll bring someone new to classical music to the recital. So I'm making the same invitation to all you music majors. Our future as classical performers is dependent on getting young people to start coming to classical concerts again. Let's see if this helps.
Bring a friend who's not a classical concert-goer, and let them know they don't have to worry about clapping at the wrong time.

We brought our kids to the concert, and ended up sitting right in front with a very enthusiastic herd of first-year students. The positives are that the students clearly listened to the music. They cheered when difficult passages were executed well, or when significant structural points in the music were reached. They also moved to the music, and were excited by the whole concert. It was the best attended recital I'd seen at DePauw, with the most engaged ovation at the end. My kids (ages 6 and 4) were also excited, but the carnival atmosphere also distracted them from really listening to the music. My six-year-old is quite practiced at attending concerts, and listens very well when everyone sits quietly. The four-year-old is newer to the concert scene, and still gets antsy before the end of an hour-long concert. Tonight, both of them ended up trying to be part of the show, talking to the students during the performance and throwing plush Cliffords up in the air. The four-year-old also attempted to get on stage a few times and plunked a few notes on an upright piano parked against the wall near us. It was hard to tell them what was appropriate behavior and what was inappropriate, when the customs we are acclimated to were being relaxed. Besides that negative, some soft passages and subtle shadings were lost among the cheers and rhythmic clapping.

I give Eric and Stephanie credit that they were incredibly focused despite the circus. Eric enjoyed the applause while maintaining very high standards of technique and musicality. They practiced performing while students danced in the aisles (something my daughter dragged me out to partake in) yesterday, and the preparation paid off. I'll be curious to see what Eric's feelings are now that it is done. Overall I think it was a very successful experiment, but not something to do for every concert or recital.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Here is a press release I received from the University of Idaho. I have found that Carnegie Hall concerts aren't always an impressive feat. This concert is not part of the Carniegie Hall concert series. Instead, the two embassies mentioned have rented Carnegie Hall for this performance. Thus, all advertising is done by the sponsors or the musicians, not by Carnegie Hall. Thus, many performances of this nature are very sparsely attended. But the guy makes sure his students do well in music theory, so go support him if you are in NY.
MOSCOW, Idaho – Steven Spooner, an assistant professor of piano at the University of Idaho, exemplifies that passion and dedication can lead to national and international success professionally. It also leads to major feats within the classroom. Spooner will be joined by famed Hungarian pianist Adam Gyorgy for an extraordinary performance at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall on Sunday, Oct. 22.

Their performance, sponsored by the Hungarian Consulate in the U.S. and the American Embassy in Budapest, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. It’s also a celebration for several of Spooner’s students, who will fly across the country to witness their teacher in action.

“Steven’s performance is an amazing opportunity for him to showcase his talents at the national level,” said Katherine Aiken, dean of the university’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. “Beyond his contribution to cultural and social enhancement, this experience will provide him with more tools to use in the education and professional development of his students.”

In particular, his ongoing professional career enables him to relate to his students and the struggles they go through as they learn. “I’m still a student, and as a result, I am continually learning,” said Spooner.

While being on stage can be terrifying, he said his most scrutinizing audience is his students. “How I prepare, both mentally and physically, is seen by my students and hopefully duplicated in their studies and performances. It allows me to understand what they are going through as they sit through lessons with me, and I’m able to tell them we’re learning together.”

To prepare for his national performance, he’s stepped up his practicing from three to four hours a day. He said the sense of devotion to practice is paramount as he prepares for a performance, a trait he’s instilling in his students.

Spooner said that one of the biggest challenges for a professor is to interact with students on a legitimate personal level. He’s come up with some unique solutions to bridge that gap, including a Facebook group called “Spooner Studio” that allows him to converse with his students and follow the daily lives of those he’s influenced.

Kezia Schrag, who is working on her doctorate degree in piano, has been a student of Spooner’s for two years and is part of his Facebook studio group. “It's really just a place for all of us to communicate with each other and our professor, whether to whine or leave updates. While it seems a small and perhaps silly element of our studio I think it easily demonstrates our ability to get along as a group,” she said.

Schrag said Spooner’s “infinite devotion to our improvement at any cause is the most striking aspect of his abilities as a teacher.” Despite his rigorous performing and teaching schedule, he is an active member of his students’ advising committees.

“He refuses to allow us to do poorly in any music class, whether it’s history, theory or something else,” said Schrag. “Also, he’s been known on occasion to just call us up at home to see how we’re doing with things – music, school or life in general. That’s a gesture unique to him.”

Schrag already has arranged to attend his performance. She said that while it’s inevitable that students sacrifice in his absence, it’s worth it having him gone from the classroom so they can learn from the quality and traits he exhibits on the national stage.

“It’s fascinating to watch Steven – I wouldn’t miss his debut at Carnegie Hall for anything. I’m overwhelmed with excitement just thinking about it,” said Schrag. “I am full of pride that he is my teacher. As an artist, and now a teacher myself, I can only hope to duplicate his abilities as a musician.”

Schrag believes his off-campus work actually is beneficial to the campus. “As a performer and adjudicator, he’s exceptional. He’s attracting so many people from around the country with his abilities; he’s transforming the university’s piano program. Steven is a tremendous asset to the University of Idaho.”

Outside of his teaching at the University of Idaho, Spooner plays some 40 concerts a year. He’s established a local presence in Moscow, too. This past year on the university’s campus he continued his Historic Recital Series with recitals of music by Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven.

Spooner’s selections for the Carnegie Hall performance are all written by Hungarians, including Liszt and Bartok. Known for his improvisations, Gyorgy will play a mixed program, including some American tunes. Mostly, they will alternate at the piano, but plan to play a duet.

The celebration performance at Carnegie Hall is the brainchild of Philip Reeker, assistant chief of mission at the American Embassy in Budapest. He was inspired to commemorate the occasion with a musical performance featuring Spooner and Gyorgy after attending their recital at the Great Hall of the Liszt Academy last year in Budapest. He started planning the celebration event more than a year ago.

“What sets these concerts apart from the normal debuts in New York or D.C. is that the recitals are sponsored in part by monies from both our embassies and several corporate sponsors in Europe, including Steinway and Sons, Hamburg, distinguishing it from the often self-funded efforts of aspiring artists,” said Spooner.

The performance will take place in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall at 8:30 p.m. and will feature works by Liszt, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Bartók and Dohnányi. Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased online at or by calling (212) 247-7800.

Spooner and Gyorgy also will perform at other venues as part of a larger tour, including: a kick-off performance in Moscow on Wednesday, Oct. 18; a performance as part of the Silvermine Artist Series in New Canaan, Conn., on Saturday, Oct. 21; and a final debut at the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Oct. 28.

For more information about the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton School of Music, call (208) 885-6231, e-mail or visit

Pod people

Over at Crooked Timber, Maria rants about her recently deceased iPod. In the post and in comments, there has been a debate about whether iTunes is overly proprietary. Maria, Cory Doctorow, and a few of Maria's commenters believe that i) the DRM protection on music purchased through the iTunes Music Store prevents copying legally-purchased music, or ii) iPods can only play music purchased through the iTunes Music Store. Cory admits in his article that it is easy to get around the copy restrictions of iTunes-purchased music. Simply burn a CD, and re-rip mp3s from the new CD. The new mp3s have no copy protection on them, though they also miss all of the metadata on title, artist, etc. So point one is rather moot. Cory plays a shell game with point two, with this sentence: "That obvious restriction: No one but Apple is allowed to make players for iTunes Music Store songs, and no one but Apple can sell you proprietary file-format music that will play on the iPod." Cory is absolutely correct, but who cares? I can't buy proprietary file-format music, but I can buy any mp3s, wavs, aiffs, or (gasp) CDs of music that will play just fine on my iPod. I have actually only purchased two songs from iTunes that I apparently cannot copy easily. I hadn't even noticed, as I only play them on my computer or my iPod. I suppose sending copies to my wife's computer and iPod would be slightly time-consuming, though I could get around that by registering her computer on my iTunes account. Heck, I could have a work computer, my wife's computer, a home computer, and two computers for my kids all registered on one account, and therefore copy the iTunes stuff between all of those computers. Or, for the whole two songs I've purchased from iTunes, I could shell out another $1.98 for her own personal copies. As it is, almost all of the music on my computer and my wife's computer (and our respective iPods) is ripped from our CDs. There are also podcasts and mp3s garnered from various internet sources. I don't know if the podcasts are proprietary, I think they are just mp3s.

I'm a little touchy about Maria's rant, as I've been without my own iPod for almost a month. My nano burned up, complete with scorch marks and a crack on the inside of the screen. So, I sent it back to Apple for a replacement. The replacement has been lost by DHL, so another replacement has to be sent now. I'm listening to music on my computer, but it just isn't the same.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Counterpoint pedagogy

I am teaching Modal Counterpoint for the first time. I've taught species counterpoint within general theory courses, but never as a separate class. I'm using Bob Gauldin's A Practical Approach to Sixteenth-Century Counterpoint, mostly because he was such an influence on me at Eastman. But his non-species approach is a little foreign to me. I learned the species from Miguel Roig-Francoli, and still have his course packet that I could have used. I was afraid his packet was too complex for an undergraduate course, though. I used Salzer and Schachter's Counterpoint in Composition within theory courses, taking the species as a springboard to Schenkerian Theory. Overall I agree with Gauldin's pedagogy, I just need to prepare more for each class.

How do you teach counterpoint, or how were you taught?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Qualifying exams

A combination of Chad Orzel's post and my own colleague who is studying for her oral exams has brought me down memory lane. It is also an interesting tie-in to the musical autobiographies my FYS students wrote this weekend.

At Eastman, music theorists take two sets of exams. First, we take the qualifying exam for DMA candidates as a pre-qualifying exam. In fact, we sit with the DMA candidates, in my case all crammmed together in the lounge of the Residence Center. This is a two-day affair, divided into four sections. First, some theory questions, usually very easy for a theory major. Next, music history questions and an essay on music history (mine was on nationalism in the 19th century). That is the first day. On the second day, the morning is spent on score identification. We are given scores with the titles and composers' names removed. We then have to identify the composer, genre, etc; justifying our guesses. Last is an analysis of some piece, written as an essay. This exam is usually taken during the last year of coursework. Note that this is a general test, with no assumptions of specific classes preparing us for the exam.

Assuming this exam is passed, the real qualifying test is taken some time later, no sooner than six months later. I took my pre-qualifying exams in March, spent the summer studying, and took my qualifying exams in October. The theory qualifying exams are three days long, spread over a week. On Monday, any question about the history of music theory is fair game. It could be something about Aristoxenus, Boethius, Mersenne, or Hauptmann. It could also be questions about contemporary music theory, from neo-Riemannian transformations to Schenkerian theory to derivatives of set theory. The morning was devoted to terms that had to be defined. They were often in German, Italian, French, or Latin, with some ancient Greek for fun (topoi stands out in my memory). The afternoon gave us a series of essays to write. This was the weeding exam, the one that most people failed. On Wednesday, a tonal piece of music was delivered, to be analyzed as thoroughly as possible. At the end of the day I turned in a ten-page analysis of a Chopin etude (one of his posthumous ones), with accompanying Schenker graphs and a form diagram.

Starting the year that I entered Eastman's program, the music theory department created three tracks for the graduate students to pursue. The hopes were that this would streamline the process towards graduation. There were students there who were in their 10th or 13th year of graduate school, still writing their dissertations or even still studying for qualifying exams! The most popular track was Analysis. The second track was History of Theory, and the third was Cognition. (One additional track was Self-designed.) The recommended coursework was slightly different for these tracks, but most important was the third day of qualifying exams. Analysis track students tackled an atonal piece, writing an essay much like the second day of exams. But for my track, Cognition, the third day was devoted to a new set of essay questions specific to the field of music cognition. I wrote an annotated bibliography of the major books on the subject, defined some terms, and wrote two essays detailing current research (at the time) in absolute pitch and timbre.

I speak of the tracks in past tense, as they are now extinct. Almost all students went in the Analysis track, except for a very few Cognition people like me and a very few self-designed tracks.

Assuming one passed these exams, the oral exam was scheduled for a month later. I took mine at the end of November. The oral exam committee was a different committee than that which wrote and graded the qualifying exams. It was designed specifically for each student, with three theorists and one musicologist on each committee. (Maybe it was an outside member, not specifically musicology. I can't remember.) My committee asked me some questions related to the written exams, but mostly stuck with new material. It was still a free-for-all, with questions flying from all subjects within music. I was asked to sketch a computer program in C++ that would create a serial matrix. I answered more cognition questions, analysis questions, and history questions. This lasted for 1.5 hours, with almost immediate feedback that I had passed. The previous exams took two weeks for notification.

I was fortunate to pass all of my exams on the first try. Ironically, it was the pre-qualifying exam that I came closest to failing. Many of my friends failed at least part of the qualifying exams, or the foreign language exam (taken in the first year). Failure requires retaking the exam (with different questions) before the next stage can be attempted. I studied very hard for the written exams, studying as a group with the three other students who were scheduled to sit at the same time. One ended up dropping the program, and the other two postponed their exams to the spring. I do not suffer from test anxiety. In fact, I usually get a performance rush from tests. Sick, I know. Besides my three colleagues, I also benefited from a huge stack of notes that older students had compiled over the years. Previous exam questions, huge glossaries, and summaries of a wide variety of fields, articles, and books. I passed these notes, made larger by my additions, on to my colleague as she studied for her exams. And I understand that copies are floating around the halls of Indiana Unversity's Simon School of Music, aiding future exam survivors. May your will be strong, and your questions easy.

Friday, August 25, 2006

A warmup

The tidal wave that is the beginning of the semester has come crashing through my life. All non-teaching activities have been drowned or swept so far away that it takes weeks to find them again. But I'm starting to tread water, enough to make a little blog post.

First, a new group blog in the classical bløgösphére, Dial 'M' for Musicology. Run by Phil Ford, Jonathan Bellman, and Richard Wattenbarger, this blog hopes to inject the musicologist perspective in the blogging world's "conversations that shape our culture" (quoting Phil).

Second, my latest class blog has been birthed. Following the tradition of gadawful names, this one is called Da Musically Inclined Bomb. The first assignment, after testing to see that they can indeed post, is to write a musical autobiography. Please visit and make comments. The more feedback the students get, the more seriously they take the writing assignments and the more they learn.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Musical Networks

I received an invitation to try out a beta version of uPlayMe. This application would scan my iTunes to see what music I had recently played, and then connect me with other users of uPlayMe who listen to the same kind of music. As I get plenty of interactions on my favorite music with my students, I feel no need for this kind of service. But even so, is it so hard for people to find others with similar tastes through school, work, and various internet sources (bulletin boards, chat rooms, etc.) that they need a program to search for them? Chime in with your thoughts, including any experiences you have had in finding kindred musical spirits.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Begin at the Beginning...

I spent time during our drive up to Canada yesterday pondering what it means for the beginning of a musical work to sound like it is the beginning. Karlheinz Stockhausen, that crazy composer from Venus, composed moment-form music with the intent of portraying eternity.
Each moment... is individual and self-regulated, and able to sustain an independent existence... moments are not merely consequents of what precedes them and antecedents of what follows; rather than concentration on the Now -- on every Now -- as if it were a vertical slice dominating over any horizontal conception of time and reaching into timelessness, which I call eternity: an eternity which does not begin at the end of time, but is attainable at every moment.

I can understand his attempt to create moments that can be ordered in any way, so there is no overall logic that demands a particular ordering. But does this prevent the first moment heard from sounding like a beginning? Berio blurred the lines of beginning in Sequenza III by having the singer come on stage muttering. The beginning of the piece occurs before the audience is ready, so it is eternal in a sense. But with Stockhausen's moment forms, the audience is prepared for the start of the work. Is that all that is necessary, or did Stockhausen remove another quality that is equally necessary for a beginning? More thoughts later.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Technical problems

My link feed, run by a server at Maricopa Community Colleges, isn't working, so I've removed it for the time being. It's too bad, I liked the updates of Performance Today stories. But the site should load much faster now.

How Much for Just the Eighth-Notes?

Over at NewMusicBox, Colin Halter asks for reasonable commission rates for composers. The comments have various professional tips, including a good link to the Meet the Composer's guideline to commissions. I have similar questions about honoraria. What are the going rates for invited lectures?

Warring athletes?

Today WFIU played John Williams' Summon the Heroes. I was struck by the martial nature of the theme. In fact, it sounded incredibly similar to themes from Glory and Gettysburg. Is that our image of athletics, that it is civil warfare? Or is the trope of war really an adaptation of friendly gamesmanship? Which came first, wrasslin' or KILL NOW?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Little known facts

My students have been giving their end-of-semester group presentations yesterday and today. The nugget of wisdom from yesterday: Takemitsu is the Japanese Billy Crystal.

From today's presentations: David Del Tredici has led an interesting life.
After many years of separating his musical persona from his personal life, Del Tredici's experiences with 12-Step recovery from alcohol and sex addiction, losing a lover to AIDS, and Oakland's Body Electric School (founded by Joseph Kramer), led to Del Tredici's total public embrace of his own sexual orientation. With his liberation came a virtual outburst of song. In the last five years, he has written over 50 songs, 12 of which comprise this 75-minute disc. Del Tredici accompanies all the selections in grand fashion.

At least no one gave me old-person pangs this year.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Trivium revisited

While searching for good pictures of monochords, I came across a blog called The Celestial Monochord - The Journal for the Institute of Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues. In its FAQ, the author answers the question:
What is "The Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues"?

The IAHB is a spurious think tank founded in March 2005. The Institute has one scholar on staff (me), and conducts research into private policy related to stuff like ... say, quantum washboards ... and maybe ... kazoogenic plasmas. The IAHB consistently loses an annual operating budget of a couple hundred dollars.

Why was I looking for a picture of a monochord? Mostly to confirm that the biggest instrument on the t-shirt I bought at the Amherst festival was a dragonhead monochord, though more accurately it should be called a tromba marina. And to distract me from the horror of a fried iPod. My replacement iPod won't arrive for another week, so I'll need plenty of distractions.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Can you hear me now?

My apologies about the dead air time. My plans to live blog the entire Amherst Early Music Festival were squashed by the closing of the computer lab I was using at Connecticut College. Then my darling wife decided to bring me back to the 21st century by dragging me to a tractor pull at the county fair. I had to caught up with my 20th century theory class at IU, check on my stuff moved to a new office at DePauw, empty out our old house, close the sale of said house (only took 15 months!), and get adopted by a little kitten.*

So, the Festival ended well. I performed publically on the cornetto for the first time that Saturday, with three different groups. The small groups went okay, but the best was the Saturday night concert, when I played in the orchestra for Charpentier's Mass for the Dead. My brother and his girlfriend came to that concert, which also featured the faculty in various combinations. One piece listed performers playing the fagotto, dulcian, curtal, and bajoncillo, a veritable tower of Babel orchestra. On Friday night they took me to a casino, my first and quite likely last appearance at a gambling establishment.

Today there was a great interview on the Diane Rehm Show with Daniel Levitin, a specialist in music cognition. He has written a new book, This Is Your Brain on Music, which sounds like a great introduction to the psychology of music. I plan to have the library order it, and then give you a review. He also has a website for the book, which he plans to keep updated with answers to submitted questions and new research results. Levitin has an interesting history, with experience both as a cognitive scientist and as a record producer and session musician.

So, what's new?

*My wife says, "What's up with the kitten by the pool?" I say, "What kitten?" Next thing I know, we have a second cat, an 8-week old that we've named Archie. DSCF0767