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Saturday, April 19, 2014

19th century Mid-western minor poet biographies

For reasons that will be mysterious, I have been perusing a set of 19th Mid-Western poets. The poems are almost unbearably bad, but each poet has a biographical sketch of 1 to 4 lines. They are much more entertaining than the poems. I don't know any poets that have these sorts of bios now. The book was published in 1902. Here are the highlights.

Elmer E. Blackman b. 1862: "He is the author of nearly one hundred poems, three of which are quite long."

Mrs. Clara E Rice b. 1856 "'An Ode to Corn,' given below, is an answer to Lord Tennyson's 'Demeter and Persephone.'"

Emma McRae b. 1871: "Miss McRae is addicted to verse writing because as she expresses it, she has inherited 'the failing,' her father, Mr. John McRae, having been quite well known in his native province as a writer of both prose and verse."

A.V. Spaulding b. 1832: "He is a successful dealer in fruit trees, roses, and shrubbery."

M. W. Kay b. 1857: "The poems of Mr. Kay occasionally appear in the local press, generally under the nom de plume of Wink. He still resides in the place of his nativity."

Carrie Renfrew: "The poems of Carrie Renfrew have appeared in the Woman's Tribune and the periodical press generally."

W. Reed Dunro. b. 1869: "He has always manifested great love for poetry and the drama [sic] and began his literary work as a reporter on a daily newspaper."

Norphie Ernest Bottom b. 1869: This bio was uninteresting, but the name is so awesome, he earned a place on the roster.

Frances E. Moon b. 1875: "This young lady has received a good education and at her graduation delivered an oration that was highly commendable."

Mrs. Mary Hoffman b. 1848: "This lady studied and practiced medicine in Chicago for several years. In 1831 she went to Nebraska and continued the practice of homeopathy until 1884"

William E. Myers b. 1844: "He has been a Sunday-school superintendent at Tamora, Nebraska, where he is engaged in dairying."

William H. Williams b. 1871: "He went to the Philippines; and is said to have died there."

"Mr. Brain is by profession an architect and builder, but now has a stock farm six miles south of Bassett."

"Dr. Beers is the author of the New National Hymn Sons of Columbia given below."

"Mr. Lowe is now a clerk in the U.S. Circuit Court at Omaha, Nebraska, where he is very popular."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Leaving our tonal ears at home with David Hasselhoff

To enrich our discussion of post tonal music, I had my class read an interview that Edward Cone did with his former teacher Roger Sessions. In the article, Sessions tells an anecdote about an interaction with Schoenberg. Sessions says to Schoenberg, "I hear this movement of your string quartet in d minor." Schoenberg says, "No you don't. You just hear the interrelation of the pitches, and you associate that with d minor." I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it.

A discussion ensued that had already come up several times in the semester. A particularly bright grad student told me that Joseph Strauss calls them "tonal puns", and further said, "We can't leave our tonal ears at home when we listen to this music." When we hear tonal analogies in atonal music, it is like looking at this picture of David Hasselhoff. You can't unsee it.

In the same way, it is terribly difficult to unhear tonal puns. The deeper question is what exactly are our "tonal ears" and what are we saying when we find tonal analogies. If we can't help but hear tonality in the music, it might seem to point toward some inherent tonality in the structure of music itself. That is certainly the argument that was made for many years - usually using the harmonic series as the underlying structure for the polemic.

I immediately asked the class what they understood as their "tonal ears." Did they mean that if I played them a piece of "conventional" tonal music, that they would be able to immediately notate all the pitches accurately? They clearly did not think that, and I don't think that is they case except for the extremely gifted. So, what are we hearing? My guess is that we are occasionally hearing vertical sonorities as triads. At most, we are hearing a few measures as "tonal puns".

We looked at the Simbolo from Dallapiccola's Quaderno musicale di Annalibera a few days ago. We discussed the fact that the first phrase ends on an a minor chord, the middle of the piece has an E major chord, and the piece ends on an a minor chord. I'm not convinced that we hear the piece in a minor. I think we hear the pun, but if tonality means anything, it has to be a deeper set of relationships than an isolated vertical sonority. It even has to mean something deeper than an isolated set of measures. If that is the case, what exactly is going on here, and is it possible to leave our tonal ears at home and unsee David Hasselhoff? I am hoping so, but I'm not sure if it is possible.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Roger Sessions on a problem with modern composers

"I go back always again to what Bloch said: 'In two years you'll be able to do anything you want.' I think this is what craft really is. It's the aim of craft. The danger I see today among some young composers is that they learn to write one piece and keep on essentially writing one piece all their lives. They learn certain clichés and formulas; and if they ever had the independence and the imagination to want to do something else, they couldn't. When I say 'do something else,' I don't mean something less far-out at all; but without a very solid craft, and the self-confidence and assurance it brings, they are helpless. I've known cases of composers that are really quite well known, and not only American, who have found themselves in precisely that kind of dilemma. They felt that their music was becoming cliché-rideen, wedded to certain procédés, as the French would say, and found themselves caught in a trap. It's like a man who wants to write a book in a language that he hasn't fully learned. There are certain things that, when it comes to really fully expressing himself, he can't say."

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Assembling clichés

It is interesting to watch composers work under pressure and time constraints. When there are deadlines to be met, you have to go with what you know will work. There is something about the sheer craftsmanship of assembling sounds that allows you to assess a composer's ability. Educationally speaking, that is appropriate to do on occasion. For example, during my comprehensive examinations, I was placed in a small room and given a theme which was a tone row, and I was told to write a theme and variations for flute and piano that contained an opening presentation and at least two variations. It was a three hour question, and I thought it was a superb way to assess me.

Naturally, when you are under pressure to finish a composition in three hours, you go with things that will work. In many ways, I imagine that this is how many film composers work. They assemble clichés that sound like Mahler - or someone similar, and they try to work in little bits of creative freedom into the constraints of the very limited harmonic vocabulary that the movie going public will accept. I have tremendous respect for the speed and ability at which those composers work.

What concerns me is when a composer completely devolves into an assembler of musical clichés. I think we all have to do it sometimes. I sometimes write a commission for someone that wants a piece in a certain style or harmonic vocabulary. I enjoy the challenge of that. I try to work in bits of creative freedom into the constraints of the harmonic vocabulary - even when the cliché may be my own "style".

The way I try to keep balance is to always have something simmering on the stove in a more adventurous vein. I always try to work on something that is pushing boundaries or rethinking problems. I have to believe that the commitment to exploration will hopefully affect the work that occurs under time constraints. I hope that the exploration allows the assembly work to become more than a simple linking together of musical ideas that "work".

Sadly, I often wind up seeing composers simply cranking out things that work. They "cease from exploration" and are often rewarded greatly for doing so. This issue, by the way, has nothing to do with "style." It happens to composers who write tonal and atonal music. It happens to composers of popular music and serious music. It's especially prevalent in contemporary musical theatre.

So, keep something good simmering on the back burner. It will keep you healthy and sane.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Peter Kivy's Philosophy of Music #2: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

One of the central arguments of the formalist position is that music - and here we are always talking about instrumental music - has a syntax and logic without any semantic content. Kivy nicely sums up the argument here:

"According to the formalist creed, absolute music does not possess semantic or representational content. It is not of or about anything; it represents no objects, tells no stories, gives no arguments, espouses no philosophies. According to the formalist, music is 'pure' sound structure; and for that reason the doctrine is sometimes called musical 'purism.'"

Of course, the formalist position helps us to avoid a lot of nonsense. It is the best part of Stravinsky's argument when he said that his post WWII music was not supposed to be expressive. Think of it like a coffee cup. An extremist might say, this coffee cup is only valuable for the function it serves which is to carry the content which is coffee. It is a similar argument that we hear in regards to music education sometimes. Music is good because it helps kids score better on math tests. In this case, music is good because it is a vehicle to chauffeur emotions around. To which the formalist can say, "Music isn't valuable because of its functionality. Music is just valuable in and of itself. It doesn't have to do anything. It can just be without having to mean something."

There is a lot to like about this. I find so much foolishness going around even in the academy when it comes to "understanding" music. So, we get these bizarre shibboleths that become the hallmarks of education. "Gesualdo wrote weird music because he murdered his wife." "Spirituals are really secret codes about escaping to the underground railroad." "Chopin's Op. 28 No. 15 is about him collapsing on the piano from tuberculosis and having a leaky roof dripping on his head." All of this is quite silly, because people write weird music without killing their wives, spirituals without traveling the underground railroad, and piano music with repeated notes without contracting tuberculosis and having water drip on their heads.

Where I'm not sure that Kivy gets it right is when he equates music with what is essentially Chomsky's famous phrase of grammar without meaning. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." The problem may be the opposite of what Kivy thinks, and he doesn't actually address this issue.

I will tackle this issue with tonal music, since that seems to be the main music that Kivy is addressing. For most musicians that I know, when we do a Roman Numeral analysis of a piece, we aren't creating some sort of taxonomy. In fact, the V7 that we write is actually a poetic symbol. For musicians, that symbol is extremely rich with meaning. The problem may very well be that my V7  is not too vague to mean something, but that it is too specific.  Here are Felix Mendelssohn's thoughts on the subject.

"Die Leute beklagen sich gewöhnlich, die Musik sei so vieldeutig; es sei so zweifelhaft, was sie sich dabei zu denken hätten, und die Worte verstände doch ein jeder. Mir geht es gerade umgekehrt. Und nicht bloß mit ganzen Reden, auch mit einzelnen Worten, die scheinen mir so vieldeutig, so unbestimmt, so missverständlich im Vergleich zu einer rechten Musik, die einem die Seele erfüllt mit tausend besseren Dingen als Worten. Das, was mir eine Musik ausspricht, die ich liebe, sind mir nicht zu unbestimmte Gedanken, um sie in Worte zu fassen, sondern zu bestimmte."

[People usually complain that music is so ambiguous; it is so problematic that they don't know what to think of it, but that words can each be understood. For me, it is exactly the opposite. And not merely with speech as a whole, but also with single words, they appear to me so ambiguous, so undefined, so misunderstood in comparison to a true music that fills the soul with a thousand better things than words. That which I pronounce in music, that I love, is to me not a thought that is so undefined that it cannot be grasped in words, instead it is too specific.] (Translation mine)

So, Felix says that the problem is not that music doesn't have semantic content, it's that the emotional specificity is so exact that words are actually blunt instruments in comparison. In any case, it's an argument that formalists need to confront. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Peter Kivy's Philosophy of Music #1

I am happily working my way through Peter Kivy's Philosophy of Music during Spring Break amidst some writing and a lot of grading. Though I am only halfway through, I can heartily recommend the book as an excellent introduction to the central issues in music aesthetics. Kivy is defending the formalist position of Hanslick with some special modifications that allow him to acknowledge and speak about the emotional aspects of music. (The monograph is from 2002, so it is rather uninformed on the advances in musical semiotics in the past 10 years.)

The formalist position nicely avoids some of the awkward problems that arise in the philosophy of music. When one of my students brought up what Kivy likes to call the "arousal" theory of music and began talking about how the music communicated emotions, I tried to get the student to clarify her position by asking the hard questions the formalist position asks. "Is the composer somehow putting his or her emotion into a major 6th? When you perform it or listen to it, are you somehow extracting that composers emotion from the major 6th? If that is not happening, what exactly are you saying?"

One solution to this problem is something that I have heard articulated by Eph Ehly on more than one occasion. That is, the composer is providing a structure for me to communicate my feelings. Now, I won't presume to understand everything that is going on in an inspired and brilliant conductor like Eph Ehly. However, I will start this series of posts contemplating the idea he proposes as I understand because it is actually interesting philosophically.

The concept is attempting a sort of end around of the formalist position. The emotion is not in the music qua music, the emotion is in the performer. The composer's emotions aren't in the major 6th, but you can put your emotions into the major 6th and somehow the audience can unpack that major 6th and hear/feel your sorry/happiness/melancholy/whatever. It is a nice solution in some ways, but when you parse out the implications, it becomes more and more disturbing.

Let's take the emotions out of the major 6th. If the major 6th exists solely for the purpose of expressing my personal emotions, then what does that mean for me as a conductor? Does that mean that the choir/orchestra exists solely to express my personal emotions? It seems the same thing to me. If an interval can be a structure upon which to express myself, why not 10 very real, human altos? Without doubt their are conductors that think this way. (Or else, why would we have sayings like, "All conductors are assholes.") But, most conductors are not like this, and surprisingly, most musicians don't even feel this way about their own instruments.

Talk to a violinist that owns an expensive instrument sometime. They never say that their instrument is simply a vehicle to express their personal emotions. They talk about the history of the thing. They talk about the other people who have put their heart and soul into the wood of the thing. They use mystical language to get at a more pertinent truth.

In the same way, I really don't think that is what we are doing when we are conducting is just expressing our personal feelings. I especially don't think that is what Eph Ehly is doing when he is conducting. When I have played for him, he said that sort of stuff in such a way that it invited each member of the ensemble to make their own contribution. The end result was not some sort of personal emotional display, but a coalescence of multifoliate expressions working toward a single musical end. What that end might be is another question.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In defense of 12 tone music (Kurt contra munda)

Naturally, we all have to do some things in order to eat. Life becomes very dangerous if you do something successful. Tremendous pressure and financial reward are brought to encourage you to produce "sequels". I certainly don't begrudge anyone the stuff they need to do to eat. However, I'd still like to encourage composers to save some room for exploration of new material instead of mama birding their "style" and regurgitating the same ideas over and over.

I am currently in the middle of teaching a bunch of graduate students a course in post-tonal theory. The class has afforded me an opportunity to revisit some of the music of the 2nd Viennese school in great depth. I have always had a deep love for the artistic boldness and deeply expressive content of the music from this period, and I honestly find it a little unnerving that many composers are growing up without being informed by this.

That is not to say that I believe that young composers need to start writing 12 tone music again. It is more complicated than that. Somewhere (I think in Cost Of Discipleship), Bonhoeffer points out that there is a difference between Socrates - at the end of a life of study - saying, "The only thing I know is that I know nothing," and a freshman walking into his/her first class and saying, "We can't really know anything, so, I'm not going to bother." Musically, there is a difference between the tonal music of Arvo Pärt which confronts the artistic issues of our time, and a certain type of tonal music which seems to be avoiding the issue.

In some sense, this is fine too. I've had a chat on this topic with two extremely successful composers, and they seem to be doing just fine without having come to terms with Arnie and the boys. Many composers in other genres never really face the issue. I think it is philosophically too significant to pass by. For me, if I want to honestly explore sounds in the modern world and be artistically adventurous, I have to confront the important issues of our time. That doesn't mean I only write 12 tone music. I also think that the lack of counterpoint is one of the central issues of our time, but that is for another blog post. I'm just saying, it's OK, to eat your fast food, but cook a nice Coq au Vin at home sometime as well.

In many ways, I'm showing my age. I was, I think, the last generation to come through school with the unspoken obligation to write 12 tone music. I was writing it in high school. I wrote it as an undergrad. I wrote it as a grad student. Now, it is another tool in the box. When I want a certain level of dissonance that sounds magical, I pull out the tools and make it work to the expressive end that I am trying to achieve.

Here is one of my pieces that I think of as pretty strictly 12 tone. As with everything, I am wildly inconsistent, but I was more consistent with this one. In many ways, this is a better argument than any words that I can say.