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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Frozen peas vs. musical universalism

I have quite a few friends, students, and colleagues that have been posting an NPR story about the lack of universal aesthetic experience when listening to music. You can read that article here. The study is by scholars from MacGill University who were playing Western music to Pygmy tribes.

One always needs to be careful when reading news reports about studies. They often get it wrong. Consider an article from the Independent here. Using the same study, the Independent describes a somewhat opposite conclusion. (Thanks to Robert Platte for sending this my way.)

In his book, Art in Action, Wolterstorff is arguing for the universal side of the question using studies by the psychologist Osgood. Osgood found that there were indeed universal aesthetic responses across cultures. Here is a very simple image and paragraph to illustrate the point.

My big question is, if we can't count on some commonality, what are we teaching our composers and music students? If I can't count on writing sad music that will be experienced as sad music, what am I doing?

My guess is that even the most ardent of this sort of musical Sapir-Whorf hypothesis aren't suggesting some sort of musical solipsism. It would just be on certain points. But that gets rather messy doesn't it? It gets messy enough to the point where I'm not sure that they are saying anything at all. It gets messy enough that you could argue that this blog post is really an article about the frozen peas in my freezer. Then again, they might not really be peas.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Teaching composition: narrative analysis

I first learned the term "narrative analysis" from Mike Siciliano. The style of analysis made so much sense to me. It was one of those things that you learn, and after you learn it, you say, "Hey, someone made a name for the thing that I've already been doing intuitively."

Here is a sample of my style of narrative analysis from an early post.

When I teach theory, I will often take at least one day to analyze a piece in this style. Yesterday, I had a composition bring in some early George Crumb songs. We sat down and looked at them together. I showed him how Crumb was completing the aggregate in one section and withholding a structurally significant pitch until the right moment.

When we started looking at the next movement, I read through it, and I decided that a narrative approach would best open up the music for him. I told the story of the music as the epic struggle of an A flat that accidentally gets naturalized. It continuously attempts to return to an A flat through a chromatic line. Every time it gets re-set, something goes wrong and it becomes an A natural again.

After hearing me go through the piece, the student said something like, "Wow. That's really amazing. It lets you understand that there is an actual emotional thing going on between notes."

In a way, no matter how erudite and sesquipedalian our terminology becomes, I don't think musical analysis should ever be far from discovering simple musical truths like this. I'm going to make sure I include some more of this type of analysis in my lessons this semester.

I'm still anxious to hear what experiments other people are doing. Send me a note.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Teaching composition with the Bach Chorales.

In the old way, you never showed your personal compositions to your composition teacher. So, when Alban and Anton showed up to Prof. Schoenberg's class, they did exercises. They did a lot of model writing, harmony exercises, counterpoint, etc. One of the good things about this approach is the respect for the students integrity. There is a very real place where I can't speak to what a student should write.

I'm not completely sure when it changed, but the general pattern now is for students to primarily bring in their own compositions. I know that Roger Sessions went through a pretty drastic change in his approach from the older European model to one focussed more on student compositions.

For me, I've always tried a balancing act. I look at student compositions, but we also do some sort of exercises. Mostly I use 16th century counterpoint. This semester, I'm using the Bach chorales. I learned this exercise from Robert Helps (a Sessions pupil). He said, "You copy out the soprano melody, make your own harmonization, and compare it to see how much you suck. You will find that he will always do something that is more daring and adventurous than you."

So my students are doing Bach chorales this semester. I'd love to hear ideas about what other people use.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 Christmas Carol Mashups #11

I had a free hour yesterday and was able to get to five more requests. Actually, I got to six because I combined two in this first bit. Josh Norris had asked for the Widor Toccata in the style of John Rutter. I had initially refused on the basis that I was only doing Christmas tunes. Nate Porath asked for "Joy to the World" in the style of the Widor Toccata. So, I thought, "Why not do 'Joy to the World' in the style of the Widor Toccata played by John Rutter." Normally, I don't even attempt to beat box, but since Rutter is a fan of the bad trap set, I added some "boots and cats" part of the way through for good measure.

One of my favorites came from Malorie Winberg. She asked for a Berstein "Here comes Santa Claus". For this I lifted the opening lick from "Cool" and just played.

One of the more beautiful choices comes from Francesca Erni who asked for "Jingle Bells" in the style of a Lully overture. This one could actually work as a piece of music.

Paul Williams asked for Copland's version of "Winter Wonderland". I managed it, but this is at the utmost end of my concentration for improvisation. I would have to write it out to go further than this. I played "'Tis a gift to be simple" on the upper manual with my left hand and "Winter Wonderland" with my right hand over a descending diatonic pedal line.

Finally, Marianne Chance Worthington has been unrelenting in her efforts to get a "Silent Night" in the style of New Kids on the Block. Actually, she originally asked for NKOTB "Silent Night". I, of course, had no idea what she was talking about. That's a particularly challenging request because the whole basis of doing this is taking a composers' harmonic or rhythmic idiosyncratic language and superimposing it on a carol. In the case of NKOTB, there isn't anything idiosyncratic enough to be recognizable, so you can only do it by quoting actual snippets. My wife's hair stylist, Lindsey Noden, was excited that I was going to be working on this one. She sang a little snippet of NKOTB. When I went through the painful process of listening to their music, the second song I heard had the same snippet that Lindsey sang, so I just used that and played "Silent Night" over the top.

I'll work on the other requests as I have time. This ends on 12th least the carols version.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Piano "tone" and "touch" is still nonsense.

At least once a year I wind up in a friendly discussion with a pianist (usually several) because I don't believe in such a thing as "touch" or "tone" on the piano because PHYSICS! My pianists friends then rally behind each other with the argument that the laws of physics don't apply to their well-trained and sensitive hands. (Incidentally, this is not an issue amongst organists. Nobody ever says, "Oh, what a touch you have! You really made that 8' Block Flöte sound so warm."

Well, my good friend Paul Barnes sent me a link to a new study on piano tone the other day. You can read that article here. So now we have a new study by two musicians to further confuse people on the topic. Even this article doesn't address whether or not the "tone" of the piano changes. It basically argues that musicians can hear the fingers hitting the keys when they play faster. Whether that is true or not would depend, I suppose, on whether the air conditioner is running in the hall.

The article goes on to suggest that it only works when you play one note at a time. When you play multiple notes, musicians get confused. It's really a shame for the authors of the study because all the best music I know has more than one note in it.

Fundamentally, this is not the argument that I understand many pianists (including some of my former teachers) to be making. That is, they argue that by your "touch" — by which they usually mean the pull or push of your finger — that you can make the piano sound "warmer" or "have a more singing tone" or some other nonsense like that.

One piece of good news is that our ears must be getting better. I remember Hindemith commenting somewhere on a study from his time when people couldn't tell the difference between a concert pianist playing a single note and someone playing it with an umbrella. It could also be that our recording technology is better, but I like to think we can hear better than Hindemith.

It's a shame that musicians did the study and not physicists. Of course the next step for their research will be to get a real experiment going. I'm going to suggest that they get Lang Lang, Jeremy Denk, and either a baboon or a bass trombone player. Let each of them "press" the key once at the same speed and let each of them "strike" the key once at the same speed. Then, mix up the six recordings and see if we can tell the difference between the "touch" of each player.  If we can tell the difference, I'll get to work writing the best one note piece of music that you ever heard.

Friday, December 19, 2014

2014 Christmas Carol Mashups #10

I only had time for two yesterday, but they are pretty fun.

The first is "You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch" in the style of a Handel aria. This clever suggestion came from Grant Anderson.

A very challenging suggestion from Brittany Downey was to play Santa Baby in the style of Schoenberg. That's tough on a number of levels. One is that Schoenberg wrote in a number of different styles. You have the early and late tonal music. You have the 15 or so years of 12 tone. Since I played Pierrot this Fall, I went with the pre-12 tone Pierrot type language. I utitlized Vienese tri-chords and octave displacement for the opening statement of the melody. Then I played a Pierrot style ostinato and added in some other stuff from Pierrot while still keeping the melody going.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 Christmas Carol Mashups #9

I only had time for two yesterday, but they were both excellent suggestions. Connie Backus Yoder suggested "The Holly and the Ivy" in the style of Bach. For this one, I took something like the accompaniment figure from the cantata setting of Nun Danket and then just played the carol melody adjusting as necessary.

Austin White gave the diabolical request for "Christmas Time is Here" in the style of post 5th sonata Scriabin. That's a language that I could imitate, but it would take more thought and time than I am willing to give right now. I did do an OK Scriabin 4th sonata style rendition though.