Saturday, December 31, 2011

Learning Music as an Adult

Currently I have the smallest group of students that I have ever had since I started teaching. What is the collective noun for 'students'? Stable? Coterie? Herd? Covey? In any case, my very tiny group now includes two adult beginners, one of whom is a retired psychologist and the other a retired electrician. In over thirty years of teaching I have had many young beginners and older beginners: seven years old to seventy. So you could say I have practical knowledge about the subject.

Am I a good teacher? Judging by results, I seem to be doing ok. A friend emailed me to mention that an adult friend of his had tried to take up the guitar, but gave up after one or two unsatisfying lessons. That can happen. My response was, try a different teacher. Of the two adults I am currently teaching, one just started a few months ago. By the end of the first lesson, he was reading simple notation. By the end of the first month he had learned to play a simple piece of music and by a couple of weeks later he had performed it in public. I schedule "guitar nights" every now and then specifically to give students a chance to play for others. Why did he progress so fast? I arrange things so that should happen. If you choose the right sort of things to start with, in the right order, you can progress pretty fast. Later on, things may slow down from time to time as some things just take a long time to absorb. But the initial progress is extremely important to give the student encouragement and excitement. My other adult student has been with me for several years and not only is he playing a lot of concert music (at the last guitar night he played the Alborada by Tarrega, a quite virtuosic little piece, and a fantasia by Francesco da Milano, with good contrapuntal sense), but he has just completed working his way through Aldwell and Schachter's 600 page textbook on harmony. He also composes.

So it is with considerable experience in realm of adult study of music, the guitar in particular, that I read the piece in today's Wall Street Journal. In case that link goes away, let me quote some relevant bits:
Can old dogs learn new tricks? Developmental psychologists have long said no. The so-called "critical periods" theory of learning says that if you want to learn something, start early in life... For years, the strongest evidence for youth as a once-in-a-lifetime period of learning seemed to come from animals. Take barn owls. Shortly after hatching, owl chicks calibrate their eyes with their ears. In a classic study, the Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen put prisms in front of owls' eyes, disrupting their normal capacity to link what they saw with what they heard. Young owls easily learned to compensate for the distortion, whereas old owls could not... My own dream had always been to learn a musical instrument, but every attempt, from grade school onward, had ended in failure. A few summers ago, at the age of 38, I decided to take one last shot.
To my surprise, there was scarcely any scientific literature on whether adults could really pick up an instrument late in life. The problem wasn't a lack of scientific interest in adult musical education. It was a lack of subjects.
To learn a musical instrument, you need to put in a lot of work—10,000 hours is a number that is often cited—and to do a proper study, you'd need a reasonably large sample of adult novices with sufficient commitment. Nobody had studied the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours because so few adults were willing and able to invest that kind of time... First, and most important, take small steps and don't expect overnight success. It's not realistic to expect to develop professional-level skills instantaneously. Whether you want to paint, cook, pick up a sport or learn anything else, your brain will need a heavy dose of rewiring.
Musical instruments, for example, require the brain to coordinate eyes, ears and hands (in some cases, feet as well). Most of us know enough to make allowances when we hear a child play at their first recital, or paint their first painting, but we forget to cut ourselves the same slack. One reason that children sometimes outperform adults is that they don't worry nearly as much about how good they are and how they look; they just get to it.Also, remember the folk wisdom of generations: Practice every day, no matter what. Because you're taking small steps, you need to take a lot of them. Learning a skill depends on building new memories, and studies show that we learn new information most efficiently if we spread our practice out rather than trying to cram it all into a short period (like before a test).And practice strategically, always targeting your weakest skills. Studies show that with everything from chess to typing to soccer to music, deliberate practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours... It's also crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn. The best guitarist in town may have once jammed with Carlos Santana, but that doesn't mean he can explain what you need to know, in terms you will understand. [my emphases]
 Let me see if I can adequately get across how much of this utterly enrages me! But before that, I have to say that there is quite a bit of truth here. It is the unexamined assumptions that are so awful. The first is the truly absurd assumption that scientists, specifically "developmental psychologists" and "biologists" are the first  place you go to find out something about learning music. Good god, why? Musicians have been teaching music forever; don't you think they have figured it out? This constant genuflecting to science as being the highest source of wisdom, even in the arts, is absurd beyond belief. Owls? Oh, please! And then the mindless reciting of the "10,000 hours" crap. When he does cite some real truths about learning music, he demeans them by calling it "folk wisdom". "Studies show" is a phrase that I have learned over the years to be extremely suspicious of. What most studies show, in my experience, is that when scientists try to figure out things artistic two things happen: either they are completely wrong, or they "discover" something we have known for a very long time.

The sentence "it's also crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn" conceals another treacherous misunderstanding. No, it is not crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn; it is crucial to find a teacher who understands how music works and what helps people--in general--learn. Yes, students are all different, in the sense that they have different sensitivities and capacities and obstacles, but how you handle this doesn't vary greatly from student to student. It really doesn't.

I don't think I have read a single article in the mainstream media this year about music that was not completely misleading. But that is why I started this blog!

How about some guitar music to end the year? Many years ago I had the pleasure of having Manuel Barrueco for a house guest for a few days. Not only a wonderful guitarist (one of the most precise and expressive there is), but a very keen and perceptive mind and a great sense of humor.

Oscar Ghiglia is not so well known as a performer, but here is a small sample. He is, however, one of the great guitar teachers. I spent two summers working with him in his master class at Banff, Alberta in the 1980s. A widely-read, cultured man, and one with with a special gift for the metaphor that reveals the musical expression.

Leo Brouwer is best known as a composer, but he is also a remarkable and unique guitarist. I think his best playing was on an album of Scarlatti sonatas:

Incidentally, when Manuel Barrueco was staying with me I played part of the album for him. He wasn't as taken with it as I was, but then he plays a lot of Scarlatti himself--quite differently!

Enjoy these less known guitarists and my best wishes to all my readers in the new year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


The German word fortspinnung refers to musical passages where there is a sense of forward direction of, as the translation goes, "spinning out". This is an effect I am often searching for when I compose, but it is one that many composers and songwriters these days seem to want to avoid. For example, a while back in this post, I mentioned that in Paul Simon's recent song "So Beautiful So What" he avoids any movement to a different harmony, relying solely on rhythmic activity for a sense of motion. Steve Reich as well, has made a specialty of relying more on rhythmic activity than harmonic activity for a sense of motion. So, movement is out (at least harmonic movement) while static is in. Why is that?

Perhaps it is out of fear of sounding like the music of the past, where fortspinnung was essential in musical structure. I'm not sure why fear of sounding like Bach or Beethoven would be so overwhelming, but perhaps that has to do with one of the precepts of modernism, that you have to come up with something new all the time--art as fashion show.

But that doesn't bother me too much. I couldn't sound like Bach if I tried! On the other hand, I really like the sensation of movement, of harmonic process.

More on Talent and the 10,000 hours

Way back in July I put up a post about a recent book by Malcolm Gladwell based on psychological research on what makes for success. I just read another discussion on this topic here. Some interesting ideas are added including the idea of deliberate, solitary practice and the idea of 'grit', i.e. keeping on with things even if the results are not immediate.

I just keep shaking my head because it seems as if the profession of psychology, not to mention the profession of writing best-selling non-fiction books based on psychology, just keeps coming up with one long-established bit of wisdom after another. How nice of them. They will protest that now we have, ahem, "scientific proof" of the bit of folk wisdom. Well, really not. My previous post ended with this critique:
I'm pretty sure that if you put 10,000 hours into something you will make some progress. But I think the very number itself is designed to benumb your mind. "Wow" you say, "what a lot of hours". But it is really a meaningless number. There are things that you will not master even in 10,000 hours and others that will come to you in 10 hours. It is more in how you approach the problem than in the sheer amount of time. From many years of teaching guitar I know that most practice time is simply wasted doing the wrong thing in the wrong way.
Similarly, to the current claims about having discovered the virtues of 'deliberate' practice and 'grit', I would reply that again, these things have long been known and they are in no sense a 'scientific' discovery because nothing has been proved. The researchers have still failed to explain the causes of success (let alone define that slippery word!).

Yes, having practiced enough hours is a necessary component of success--wait, for that slippery word let us substitute the perhaps clearer word 'mastery' or 'competence'. Here is what you need to do to become competent or capable on an instrument (which may, in time, lead to mastery): practice enough hours. Also, practice in an organized fashion (the 'deliberate' part). Also, be determined about it, keep working even if discouraged (because you will get discouraged). Is that it? Well, of course not. Thousands of people have done all this and still failed to become competent on a musical instrument. The inexplicable missing element has traditionally been attributed to 'talent'. Incidentally, it seems as if the real purpose of all this research is to eliminate the concept of 'talent', which they interpret as meaning 'genetic predisposition'. In the article linked to above they say:
The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance...The intrinsic nature of talent is overrated – our genes don’t confer specific gifts. (There is, for instance, no PGA gene.)
 The mistake here, I think, is to equate 'talent' with 'genes'. What is perfectly obvious to anyone that has spent much time teaching music is that students are all individuals. They have different sensitivities, abilities and obstacles to overcome. For some, good advice like "practice deliberately" and "don't give up" is excellent advice and will result in progress. For others, you hardly have to say a thing, just point them in the right direction. For others, only modest results are possible. Why is this? Well, if people are all different is not a good enough answer, then I will add that there are a lot of subtle abilities that are extremely useful if you want to play music. Take your sense of time, for example. How attuned are you to a recurring pulse? How acute is your hearing? Are you sensitive to minute differences in pitch? How keen is your kinesthetic sense? How precise and delicate is your control of your fingers? How aware are you of differences in tone-color? There are even more subtle things. Recently I watched part of an interview with Itzak Perlman on the Wall Street Journal site and one of the wise things he said was "you have to practice the right way--if you practice one hour the wrong way, it can take two hours to undo those errors." Yes, exactly! But the ability to sense when you are practicing something the wrong way is a subtle one. For example, you can hinder your progress enormously by simply working too hard on everything instead of doing it with minimal effort.

This whole complex of sensitivities and abilities, some of which we don't have a name for, are crucial in achieving competence on a musical instrument. As a kind of shorthand, we have traditionally referred to them as 'talent'. But there is no predestination involved! As for the relationship between genes and these sensitivities and abilities, perhaps our scientific researchers can look into that when they have finished telling us stuff we already know--like it helps to practice!

Isn't it interesting that a predetermined agenda seems to underlie so much so-called 'scientific' research?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Music and Morality

Reading a review of a new book on Beethoven, I ran across this passage:
Though Dr. Broyles does not say so, World War II essentially shattered the notion of classical music as inherently moral. It’s hard to watch film of an orchestra playing Beethoven for an audience of uniformed Nazis and continue to believe that the music has some special moral power. True, the Allies made use of Beethoven too: the opening motto of his Fifth Symphony — da-da-da-dum — is a Morse code V, for victory, and that became the Allied battle cry. Still, the Beethoven as an Ethical Force industry collapsed after the war.
 The idea that prior to World War II, classical music had a certain moral authority that it lost afterwards is one put forth in a number of places such as Alex Ross' book "The Rest Is Noise" where we find this passage:
In the wake of Hitler, classical music suffered not only incalculable physical losses--composers murdered in concentration camps, future talents killed on the beaches of Normandy and on the eastern front, opera houses and concert halls destroyed, emigres forgotten in foreign lands--but a deeper loss of moral authority ... by the 1970s the juxtaposition of "great music" and barbarism has become a cinematic cliche: in A Clockwork Orange, a young thug fantasizes ultraviolently to the strains of Beethoven's Ninth...
I would add to that the scenes of Hannibal Lecter dreamily enjoying Bach's Goldberg Variations before committing another atrocity.

But I think there is a serious logical error occurring here that is very unfortunate. In a sense it is a case of blaming the victim: evil men used classical music to gild their evil ideologies so that means that classical music loses its moral authority? How does that make sense? Guilt by association? Wasn't every orchestra in the world playing Beethoven before, during and after the war? How is it that only the performances by the Nazis count?

One defense is to say that classical music is formalist: it doesn't actually contain any moral messages, but is just a structure of sound. The last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with its text by Schiller would seem to argue against that. I would also venture that the music of Beethoven--among many others--displays a humanity, an expressiveness, a seriousness that could be considered a kind of moral force.

This is a book-length argument, of course, and I merely hint at it. But I would be interested in reading any comments on the subject.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mirror Fugue/euguF rorriM

A while back I mentioned a college textbook on counterpoint: Modal and Tonal Counterpoint: From Josquin to Stravinsky by Harold Owen. It is intended for undergraduates, obviously. Just now I tried to look up "mirror fugues" to see what he had to say and there was nothing. Mirror fugue was for me the occasion of one of those stunning moments of realization that one has in one's life. Let me set the stage.

By a quirk of fate I never took a single class of counterpoint in my undergraduate years. I transferred from one university to another after first year theory. In the first university, they spent first year on harmony, reserving second year for counterpoint. In the second university, they did it the other way around. When I applied to the second university (McGill in Montreal), they told me I had to do some placement tests to see exactly what they would give me credit for and what I would have to enroll in. One of the placement tests involved counterpoint, so I spent the summer teaching myself the basics. As a result, I passed the placement and did not have to do the counterpoint course. I only ever did one counterpoint course, Fugue, the most advanced of all, and I didn't do it until I was in the doctoral program, many years later. It was in this course that I had one of those stunning moments of realization.

Fugue involves a number of interesting techniques, some of which involve transforming the subject. You can make the subject twice as long, by doubling the note values, (quarter notes become half notes and so on) or by inverting the subject: a step up becomes a step down and a leap down becomes a leap up and so on. Bach has lots of great examples. This one, from the Art of Fugue, manages to combine three different versions of the subject in the first three measures. First, there is the subject, which is itself a transformation of the basic subject of the whole Art of Fugue. Then, in measure two the subject again, but upside down and in double note values. Finally, in measure three, the subject in the original note values, but upside down. I omitted the continuation of the first, tenor, voice for clarity.

Click to enlarge

Just a bit later, in measure five, the bass enters with the subject upside down and in quadruple note values with the quarter note becoming a whole note! Let's hear that whole piece, the Contrapunctus VII:

Another technique is called "invertible counterpoint" and involves putting the upper voice below the lower, or vice versa. The problem is that not everything works upside down. When you invert voices at the octave, the most obvious interval, the intervals change. Octaves become unisons, 7ths  become 2nds, 6ths become thirds, and so on. The problem, oddly enough, is with the 5ths, which become 4ths. The dissonant intervals like the 7th, stay dissonant in inversion, but the 5th, a consonant inverval, becomes the 4th, which is usually a dissonant interval needing resolution. So just avoid 5ths! Heh. You can invert at other intervals, such as the 10th, but they are more difficult because parallel thirds and tenths become parallel unisons or octaves and therefore must be avoided.

The kind of counterpoint that is written so that it may be inverted is called either invertible counterpoint, or double counterpoint. Now imagine if someone were to write an entire fugue, in three or four voices, and wrote it so that it could all be inverted. Almost unimaginable. But Bach did it three times in the Art of Fugue. Once in three voices and twice with four voices! Here, chosen somewhat at random, are three measures from Contrapunctus XVIII (in my score: the recorded versions call this Contrapunctus 12a and 12b). The top staff is from the right side up version, and the bottom staff is the mirror image:

Click to enlarge

As you can see, the soprano becomes the bass, the alto the tenor, the tenor the alto and the bass the soprano. And everything works! I think you have to try writing invertible counterpoint a bit before you can appreciate how difficult this is. Put it this way, in the Fugue course we had been struggling with invertible counterpoint for a few weeks. And then the professor said, "oh yes, and Bach wrote some fugues in which the whole thing, all four voices, were invertible." I nearly fell off my chair. So let's hear the two versions of the fugue. First, right side up. The brief excerpt above occurs about 50 seconds in:

Then, upside down or "inversus":

The whole idea of writing a whole fugue so as to be invertible is at the very stratosphere of counterpoint. I can't think of a single composer who has managed it since Bach...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

300th Post

Assuming a modest 500 words per post (some have been over 1000), three hundred posts come to something like 150,000 words, or a few books! What I try to do every day is come up with some idea or perspective on music that might be illuminating. This partly comes from a long period of teaching when I was always trying to find some perspective, some metaphor that would reveal an important aspect of music to the student. I have had students contact me twenty years later saying they still remembered (even if I didn't!) a particular metaphor I had used.

What should I do today? Sometimes I comment on popular music, as in yesterday's post on the music of 2011. A lot of the time I talk about Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich because they seem to me to be the most important composers of all. You can discover a lot more about music studying a Bach fugue or a Beethoven sonata or a Shostakovich string quartet than pretty much all the alternatives. But I have a lot of affection for Haydn, Mozart and Steve Reich as well.

I don't think you can take music seriously and not develop strong opinions about the worth of different musics. That's why articles like the one in the Wall Street Journal I talked about yesterday puzzle me. How can a music critic find everything absolutely delightful? I find most music to be either horribly dull or just horrible. Ah, I think I just found my topic for today: levels of creativity. This is going to be parallel to the post I did a long time back on levels of musical knowledge. Here it is.

Let me see if I can define levels of musical creativity:

  1. You write a simple piece in a well-established musical form or genre such as a minuet or a folk-song. Mozart could do this when he was seven.
  2. You write a piece in a more demanding genre such as a sonata movement or a two-part invention. (I say 'write', but this could be improvised as well-in Jazz, you wouldn't write it down, for example.) Second and third year music students typically do this sort of thing.
  3. You write a really appealing piece or song in a well-established genre. A rock group or individual artist in pop music might do something like this that becomes popular--a 'hit'. A classical example might be something like a Haydn minuet.
  4. You write something that really captures the genre, exhausts the genre or exceeds the genre. A good example of this would be one of the more famous songs by the Beatles: "Yesterday" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" for example. A classical example might be one of the Bach fugues like the C major from Bk 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a good Beethoven symphonic movement like the second movement of the Symphony no 7. Perhaps one of the Chopin mazurkas.
  5. You write something that absolutely transforms the genre or form. Examples: The Beatles, Revolver; Bach, the keyboard suites; Haydn, the symphonies; Mozart, the piano concertos, Beethoven, the early piano sonatas.
  6. You create an entirely new form or genre: Haydn, the string quartets and symphonies; Chopin, the nocturnes, the scherzos, the ballades; Stravinsky, the modern ballet; Steve Reich, process music; Scarlatti, the single-movement keyboard sonata.
  7. You create something that transcends not only the form or genre, but that is a master work transcending its era. Bach, the WTC, the Art of Fugue, Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5 and 9; and several of the later piano sonatas; Shostakovich, Symphonies 5, 7 and 10.
That seems to exhaust the list, but there are a lot of great pieces that I didn't find a category for. For example, the Shostakovich string quartets are a re-invention of the Classical string quartet, but adapted to modern sensibilities. They are important enough for me to worry that I don't know where to put them. I also  recognize that there are some very important works in Jazz that I also am not sure where to put. Another artist that doesn't fit very well is Bob Dylan who has done some great things, but hard to characterize. The lyrics are brilliantly original, but are often combined with music that revives or recapitulates older musical styles. This very combination has a kind of creativity to it.

But the thing was to take a stab at it, even if it isn't entirely successful. The value in an exercise like this is that it puts things in perspective. This might help in explaining the relationship between two pieces where one is a flawed attempt at something truly new while the other is a more successful realization of something already established. What that tells you is that they need to be considered, valued, in different ways. Let's end with some music. The second movement of Beethoven, Symphony no. 7:

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 in music

Now is the time of year when people publish summing up stories. The Wall Street Journal has one on the music of 2011 here. I like to check into popular music from time to time because sometimes you find some really good stuff. So I started reading this article with interest, hoping to discover some interesting music. Lucinda Williams? I tried out a couple of songs, but really? Same old country blues. I didn't hear one thing that was interesting.

Next, Paul Simon. He's done a lot of good things over the years and the song "So Beautiful So What" isn't bad. But has he completely given up on harmony? I mean the musical content of this song is a single lick that never changes and the contrasting chorus simply consists in stopping the lick briefly. The harmony never changes.

Next, Elbow's album Build a Rocket Boys!

The previews are perfect for my purposes because I just want to see if there is something going on. They have the flattened affect that so many of the new bands seem to have. But some interesting things for sure. For one thing, they seem to have more than just one sound. And there are references to other musical styles. Sometimes a kind of lyrical hymn-like quality. Occasionally a melody. Worth some investigation...

Next, Anna Calvi.

Now this I liked! Some passion, some harmony and the music had some real direction. And these things are not unrelated... Next, Joy Formidable, The Big Roar. The first half of the song sounds like The English Beat with a ska-like riff. The second half seems to have succumbed to the tedious influence of Radiohead.

Next, an interesting cross-cultural collaboration: Vincent Segal and Ballak√© Sissoko's "Chamber Music" 

Now this is pretty nice: subtle, restrained and with a floating charm. Not terribly common qualities these days! How about someone else from Mali? The guitarist Vieux Farka Tour√©.

At first this reminded me of the "high-life" music of King Sunny Ade, but more one dimensional. By three minutes in I was really longing for something to happen. But it never did. What King Sunny Ade had was a spectacular rhythm section backing him up:

The next collection in the article contains the work of "high-profile rappers" so I think I will stop right there and let you go on and check out the others for yourself. I want to mention that the original article itself is rather odd, though. It's not a traditional puff piece which is solely to promote a single artist. It is not a work of music criticism as it contains not a single critical comment. What it is, is a kind of rhapsody of purple prose glorifying everything in sight. You would almost think that 2011 was the greatest year in music since 1965. Or 1721. The writer sounds as if he just loves everything. Everything is an "absolute delight". I don't know what to think of that. How can everything be an absolute delight? It can't, of course. So how does he sort out the more absolutely delightful from the less absolutely delightful? 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Mysterious Popularity of Bach's Cello Prelude

A guy has just done a version of the prelude to the First Cello Suite by Bach for eight cellos. Like Paul McCartney in the early days after the Beatles, he is playing them all himself, over-dubbed many times.

This is a demonstration of how to destroy a good piece of music by goofing around, by adding as much redundancy as possible and let's not forget the backbeat! OK, that does it. I'm officially puzzled. Now don't get me wrong. I love the G major prelude. I have played it on guitar for many years, first in the usual D major arrangement and for the last couple of decades, in my own version in A major. I play the whole suite, actually. I also love the other suites and preludes to them: the D minor prelude is riveting in its solemnity, the C major in its simplicity and breadth.

But it seems as if the G major prelude is becoming a Hit. A Top-Pop Golden Oldie. It is kind of fascinating to watch this happen. Now this prelude has always been well-liked and better known than the other ones for cello. But it has never been the kind of widely-known prelude that say the C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier is. Let alone as hugely popular as the E minor prelude by Chopin. And very far from the kind of universal recognition that the Moonlight Sonata has. But more and more it seems to be creeping into the popular consciousness. One big step was probably its use in the Galapagos sequences of the film Master and Commander a few years ago. Yo-Yo Ma's frequent performance of it in a variety of venues probably had an effect as well. So right now I'm betting that the stock in the G major prelude is going to keep going up. That is, if it were a stock. Alas, Bach himself can no longer collect the royalties. Instead they will go to that grinning fool who did the version for eight cellos.

In composition, as in life, no good deed goes unpunished. But there is still Rostropovich:

UPDATE: I see on Alex Ross' blog that part of the Make Music Winter festival going on in New York right now consists of stationing members of a chamber music orchestra at all the stops on the F line, all playing, you guessed it, the G major prelude from the first cello suite. This sounds very much like something Cage would do. But I really would prefer they didn't do it to Bach... What is it about this piece? Is it the simplicity of it that appeals to us in these dumbed-down times?

When Doctors Do Musicology

This story from the BBC strikes me as, well, silly. Discussing the influence of Beethoven's increasing deafness on his music, this is the claim:
Researchers from the University of Amsterdam, have found his early quartets (opus 18, 1798-1800) used a variety of high notes.
Beethoven, who suffered from a severe form of tinnitus, first mentioned his hearing problems in 1801 in a letter to Franz Wegeler and Karl Amenda.
He wrote: "In the theatre I have to get very close to the orchestra to understand the performers, and that from a distance I do not hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers' voices."
By 1810, when he composed the opus 74 and 95 quartets, the amount of high notes he used dropped significantly, tending towards lower frequency notes.
But the higher registers increased again in 1825, when he wrote the late string quartets opus 127 to 135 and it was thought he had become completely deaf.
The report's author Edoardo Saccenti said: "These results suggest that, as deafness progressed, Beethoven tended to use middle and low frequency notes, which he could hear better when music was performed, seemingly seeking for an auditory feedback loop.
"When he came to rely completely on his inner ear he was no longer compelled to produce music he could actually hear when performed and slowly returned to his inner musical world and earlier composing experiences."
 Well, yes, I think it is generally known that Beethoven did in fact use "high notes" in his early and late string quartets. Not to mention low and middle ones. So to test this odd claim, let's just have a look at those supposedly indicative middle-period quartets, op 74 and op 95, the 'Harp' and 'Serioso' quartets. On page 2 of the score of the 'Harp' quartet the first violin ascends to the fifth ledger line above the staff. On the next page, to the space above the fifth ledger line, on page four to the space above the fourth ledger line, on page five to the fifth ledger line again and so on. The Quartet op 95 shows the same kind of tessitura in the first violin. These are high notes. Very high notes. The same kind of high notes that we find in the early and late quartets. Neither I nor any other musicologist over the last 200 years have noticed any avoidance of high notes in the middle-period music of Beethoven and I sure don't see it in the scores.

Now, to be fair, I haven't seen the original article with its research data so perhaps I am missing something. But one thing is for sure: the BBC is shining everyone on with this ridiculous balderdash. Here's a tip: don't believe anything you read in the paper, hear on the radio or see on TV, especially when it makes some kind of scientific claim. The kind of 'science' we get in the mass media is absurdly over-simplified when it isn't utterly mistaken.

Here is the first movement of the Quartet op 74. Have a listen for the high notes, the first of which occur around 2:24 to 2:27:

In Memoriam Paul Kling

One of the greatest gifts that the world of music gives to those who become musicians is the extraordinary people you may meet. For me the most remarkable person I met in a life of music was the Czech violinist Paul Kling. I taught at the same conservatory as his wife, Taka Kling, a very charming Japanese woman. We even shared a recital together once. But I was very privileged to come to know her husband. Somehow it was decided that one day we would get together and read some music for violin and guitar--Giuliani, I believe. Now at this time I was already an established artist, a graduate of McGill University with a Concert Diploma in classical guitar and chairman of the guitar department at the conservatory. But this experience was extraordinary as I realized quite quickly that Paul was a truly great musician. I had never played chamber music with someone of his quality before. We ended up doing quite a few concerts together and he asked me to come teach at the university where he was chairman of the School of Music.

He had a great sense of humor. A friend of mine and I were just coming out of a concert by a young Canadian cellist, known for her orgasmic expressions while playing, and when we said something critical he replied, in his distinctive Czech accent, "you were expecting maybe Rostropovich?" A young violinist was auditioning for the performance program--this was at the University of Victoria in British Columbia--and she rather brashly said, "why should I come study here instead of one of the bigger music schools?" He said, "Well, I've been fooling everyone for fifty years, I can fool you too." He used to tell a story about his grandfather and father. His grandfather was a doctor and had a good practice. He was prosperous and had a nice house and some land. Then came World War I and after the war they moved all the borders around and now his grandfather's house was in another country. His father also became a doctor, had a nice practice, bought a house and some land. Then came World War II and after the war they moved all the borders and now his father's house was also in another country. "So I became a violinist."

He told me about studying in Vienna. One day he had an amazing lesson in which his teacher told him the great secret of violin-playing. He was so excited afterwards he walked around Vienna for hours, taking the occasional coffee and pastry in the marvelous coffee shops they have. Finally he got back to his apartment and as he went in he suddenly realized he had forgotten what his teacher said! If you were going on a trip somewhere, to France, or the US or Japan or Brazil, he always knew the best restaurants.

He was a violinist of great accomplishment. At seven he played Mozart and Bach concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic. At nine he was broadcast on Austrian radio. He was concertmaster in Tokyo and Louisville, Kentucky. He toured Japan with Herbert von Karajan playing the Brahms violin concerto. Once I lent him a fine recording of Itzak Perlman and John Williams playing music for violin and guitar and all he said when he returned it was "Perlman always plays sharp." I had a listen, and yes, he was right.

Another good friend of mine, also Czech, told me an amazing story about Paul Kling: he was Jewish and when he was quite young, fifteen years old, he was sent to a concentration camp. In 1943 he arrived in Terezin where he played music under the auspices of a program set up by the SS called Freizeitgestaltung. This did not last too long. In 1944 he was sent to Auschwitz. He never spoke of these things, but my friend, a pianist, knew because her parents had also been in Auschwitz. He had brought his violin along with him to Terezin, of course, but no scores.  He said later on, “I had everything memorized.  And I wasn't thinking of, you know, staying there for a long vacation."

What sort of violinist was Paul Kling? He reminded me of Jascha Heifetz more than anyone else. He once said that every great violinist in the 20th century was either a Russian Jew from the Caucasus or studied with one. On one occasion we were doing a recital together and decided that we would each play a solo piece. I called him up and asked him what he had decided on and he said "the Chaconne". The Chaconne, as opposed to all the other chaconnes, is the last movement of the 2nd Partita for solo violin by J. S. Bach and is not only the greatest piece for solo violin, but also one of the greatest pieces from the Baroque Era. Good heavens, I thought, what could I possibly play? His performance was sheer perfection.

Here is a brief online biography of Paul Kling. And below is a photo taken when we were doing a chamber music series together. Paul is holding his Guarnerius violin.

Paul Kling, Bryan Townsend, Michael Strutt and Lanny Pollet

I have a CD of Paul playing the Beethoven violin concerto that was presented to him when he was awarded thCross of Honour for Arts and Letters by the President of Austria. But all I can find of him on YouTube is this performance of the Easley Blackwood Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op 21:

UPDATE: I see there is a new Wikipedia entry for Paul Kling that links to this post. While I am flattered, I must correct an error. Paul passed away in 2005. I simply chose to do a post on him in 2011. For some odd reason, the Wikipedia entry takes the date of my post as the date of his passing.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to a commentator, more of Paul Kling has turned up. You can go to YouTube and listen to his recordings of the Violin Sonatas nos. 4 and 5 by Beethoven:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vulgar Gaiety

I was reading some history by Jacques Barzun and ran across this phrase used to describe the music of Offenbach.

The first thing that popped into my mind was wow, if you call Offenbach "vulgar gaiety" what the heck are you going to call this latest from Beyonce:

Great phrase, "vulgar gaiety" and so appropriate to so much recent music. Heh!

Bach in the morning

One of the best things one can do to start the day, I find, is to play Bach for an hour. It refreshes the mind and inspires the soul and it is quite nice to have a little Bach floating around in the back of one's mind as one goes through the day. In that spirit, I am off now to play a little Bach. I'll try to put up a new post later on.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Debussy -- "Voiles"

The discussion about the division of the octave into major thirds in Coltrane's "Giant Steps" got me thinking about other instances of this technique. There are four possible ways of dividing the octave symmetrically: two tritones, three major thirds, four minor thirds and six whole tones. "And a partridge in a pear tree" Right season, wrong song!

The great benefit of dividing the octave in these ways is to avoid traditional harmony, which seems to have been Coltrane's intention. I'm still thinking about that. But let's have a look at how someone else approached this. I'm thinking of "Voiles" from the Preludes, Bk 1 of Claude Debussy. Here is the piece:

It is so handy to have the score right there. As we can see right from the opening, Debussy is using the whole-tone scale:

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Here is the opening idea; whole tones in thirds descending from #III to bVI, then via an octave displacement to bV:

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Whole tone scales always look a bit odd because our notation is not designed for them. How you spell a note is pretty much arbitrary: F# and Gb are just the same in a whole tone scale. Soon after this opening Debussy introduces two other ideas. The three ideas then co-exist, on different layers:

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The top layer is the opening idea in thirds, but moved to the beginning of the measure. The second idea is the Bb bass note pedal which was introduced in measure 5 and the third idea is the rising augmented chords, originally presented in octaves only in measure 7. The example above is how they look together. The only triads possible in a whole tone scale are augmented ones. Now, what about that Bb pedal? Well, it is a whole tone away from the 'tonic', C. In the contrasting middle section of the piece the pedal stays on Bb and the key signature moves to five flats (Bb minor?). Debussy 'cadences' in the last three measures by finally dropping the Bb pedal which has been present throughout the piece, and by reiterating the movement D/F# to C/E several times, ending on C/E. This is somewhat analogous to the traditional technique of zoning in on the dominant by using an augmented sixth chord with the notes a semi-tone above and below the dominant. Here he zones in on C by stressing the notes a whole tone below--the Bb--and above--the D.

Successful piece, I think. It shows that you can structure a piece using a whole tone scale. The melody comes from whole tones (though in that middle section he uses the pentatonic scale as well), the harmonies come from the same scale and he creates a kind of 'modal' cadence at the end. But Debussy just did this once in a short piece and I think that we can conclude that the whole tone scale, by itself, is very limiting.

Now the octatonic, on the other hand... But that's a story for another day.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

John Coltrane - "Giant Steps"

A commentor recently took me severely to task for criticizing Jazz and cited "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane in particular as a great example of Jazz. So let's have a look at it. Here is a clip of the piece that shows the sax solo in notation:

Here is a discussion of Coltrane's approach to harmony in this and other pieces. The technique involves third-related harmonies which, since the relationships are symmetrical, avoids giving a sense of harmonic direction. The Wikipedia article on the Coltrane changes first describes the progression in "Giant Steps" as C, Eb7, Ab, B7, E, G7, C or, in terms of harmonic analysis: I, V of bVI, bVI, V of III, III, V7, I. Simplified a bit to show the movement down by major 3rds: I bVI, III (V7) I.

Later on in the article the chords given there are B maj 7, D7, G maj 7. Bb7, Eb maj 7, A min 7, D7 which is how they appear in the chart for "Giant Steps". The tenor sax is a transposing instrument in Bb, meaning that a written C sounds as a Bb, so if you want a C, you write a D. But that still doesn't get us to the progression in the chart. But never mind, let's just assume that in the first part of the Wikipedia article they transposed to C for simplicity. Here's another problem: the progression is described as falling major thirds or C, Ab, E, C (with an interpolated dominant). This progression is not unknown in Classical music, but usually in the form I, vi, IV, (V) I with first inversion chords interpolated. In diatonic harmony, this has a minor third and a major third. What I see in the progression given in the chart is, starting on B, up a minor 3rd, down a 5th, up a minor third, down a fifth, then a tritone, then a 4th. Also, the key seems to be G major, so the chords might be analyzed as III, V7 of I, I, V7 of bVI, bVI, ii, V7. I'm starting to see why in Jazz they don't analyze in terms of functional harmony!

So what John Coltrane has done is developed a harmonic structure with some interesting symmetries that tends to dilute the sense of tonic. I think the problems trying to analyze it start with the fact that in Jazz it seems to be the case that the idea of chord inversion is not significant. In other words, the idea of root movement is pretty weak. I say this because the bass and piano are free to play any element of the harmony as the lowest note. Similarly, so is the idea of cadence. The ends of sections are not marked with strong cadences--the closest we get seems to be a half-cadence. This suits the improvisational, open-ended character of Jazz.

But I still find it fundamentally unsatisfying because you can have open-ended music or you can have goal-directed music, but you can't really have both. So, forgive me, but what I hear when I listen to "Giant Steps" is some very cool music with a lot of character, but music that has no real direction. Intentionally has no direction, I believe, because the function of the non-functional, symmetrical harmonies is to remove that sense of real harmonic direction and movement that we find in Classical harmony. Fair enough. But when you take that away, what I hear is a jittery surface with no underpinnings...

Friday, December 16, 2011


This is a rhythmic technique that is widely used. The definition, "If a part of the measure that is usually unstressed is accented, the rhythm is considered to be syncopated" may seem a bit obscure, like the definition of ontology in philosophy: "the study of being qua being." Here is the fairly good Wikipedia article on syncopation. The problem with terms like syncopation or harmony or ontology is that they are so fundamental that they are very difficult to define in terms of anything else.

Let's go right to some examples. Rock and roll is partly based on a very simple kind of syncopation. In a measure of four beats the normal ones to stress are one and three: ONE two THREE four. In rock and roll, instead the two and four beats are stressed. This is known as the "back-beat". Here is an example:

It would be a creative thing to try and do a rock song that didn't do this and in fact Cream did. Here is "Sunshine of Your Love":

What gives it its primal effect, apart from the 'lick', is the strong beats on one and three, possibly inspired by Ginger Baker's interest in African drumming. Neophyte rock drummers are sometimes very puzzled to play this one because they are so thoroughly programmed into putting the stress on the backbeat.

This is syncopation on the basic level of style or genre. Another example would be the Baroque sarabande, a slow dance in 3/4 time. Normally in triple time the first beat is stressed, the second beat is neutral and the third beat lifts--the 'upbeat' (meaning that in a dance, the dancer would typically lift their foot on this beat so as to put it down on the first beat). But in the sarabande, it is the second beat that is stressed: one TWO three. An example:

The common metric technique based on syncopation is called 'hemiola' and involves turning two measures of 3/4 into one measure of 3/2 by using syncopation: ONE two THREE one TWO three. This was often used at final cadences in Baroque music.

But syncopation is found on all rhythmic levels, even within beats. So it is not only a metric technique, but also a rhythmic one on the level of melody and a harmonic one as well, as intense harmonies are often placed on weak beats. In the following example, the third movement of a Beethoven quartet, the first variation uses some intense accents on the weak parts of the beat at the end of the first section. The effect is around 1:53 in this clip:

The only kind of context in which you cannot use syncopation is one where there is no context of strong and weak beats and hence no expectation to play with. This is the problem with the jagged rhythmic textures of high modernism because they are so fragmented that the listener has no sense of a regular beat. Ironically, these pieces that look extremely 'rhythmic' on paper, really have little rhythmic effect because they sound random.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Style and Harmony

It has long been the assumption that the developments in the late 19th and early 20th century demonstrated the exhaustion of tonal harmony as a useful technique for composers. The ever-growing chromaticism and ambiguity as to a tonal center seemed to imply this. Mind you, the triumph of atonal or pan-tonal composition was rather brief, lasting until not long after the Second World War. By 1970, a number of composers were again writing very tonal music. But I think that the assumption was simply incorrect.

I believe that tonal harmony is a technique that has been used in a wide variety of musical styles and the assumption that it was exhausted was short-sighted. The kind of tonal harmony that was chosen by Classical and Romantic composers came to an end because those periods came to an end. New kinds of musical expression came to the fore. Let me chose an example to show what I mean.

The harmonic sequence was very important from the late 17th to mid 19th centuries. There were various kinds: descending fifth, ascending fifth, ascending 5-6 and falling thirds. All these sequences used pairs of chords. As time went on they were ornamented in various ways with added sevenths, applied dominants, augmented sixth chords and chromatic voice-leading, but the basic principle was the same: pairs of chords. Sequences were hugely popular because they gave a strong sense of harmonic motion, but still strengthened the harmonic structure. This is why the chords were always in pairs. The basic pairing was often concealed with a variety of figurations, but pairs were the general method. But it didn't have to be this way. Here is the basic structure of a typical sequence:

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But you could use a sequence of three chords rather than just two:

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That is just a tiny variation, but there are probably a thousand others. What if you had different rhythmic layers for each voice, for example? As we can see from a lot of the so-called 'minimalist' composers, rhythm is probably the least-explored aspect of composition.

My point is that tonal (or some variation of tonal) harmony has enormous possibilities only a few of which were explored in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. Just as the Classical composers discovered all sorts of new ways to use the harmonic techniques they inherited, so could we. I really don't think that harmony needs to be as static or impoverished as it often sounds today.

The Baroque era had certain aesthetic ideals that they used harmony to express. The Classical era had different aesthetic ideals that they altered harmony to express. So too with the Romantics.

So the problem isn't, I think, with the technique of harmony, which is just a device, after all. The problem is perhaps with our aesthetic ideals.

UPDATE: My apologies! I was in a bit of a hurry when I created my examples and in the second one above, the "Altered Sequence" I managed to write parallel octaves. That wasn't the kind of innovation I was seeking! What I should have written in the soprano voice in the final measure was C, Bb, A.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Six Month's Bloggiversary

I think I have missed my own six months semianniversary by about a week. But it's not too late to put up links to some of those early posts that many of you may have missed. In the early days I didn't have the massive and learned readership I have now (ahem), but there were still some good posts. Here are my favorites:

Gustav Leonhardt

From Norm Lebrecht's blog today comes the news that the great harpsichordist and organist Gustav Leonhardt is retiring--at age 83!

Leonhardt is a towering figure in the Early Music movement that grew strongly starting in the 1950s and continues today. He is a spectacular harpsichordist and organist. I have to confess that I have never been a great admirer of the organ, but the harpsichord is a different story. The edginess of the sound takes some getting used to, but the clarity and the depth of the repertoire makes up for it. Here is Leonhardt playing the Goldberg Variations, one of the first pieces he made his name with in the 1950s:

He also made some wonderful recordings of Domenico Scarlatti. I think you can hear in this performance some of what makes him unique as a harpsichordist. There is an expressive intensity that one doesn't usually imagine the harpsichord capable of. After the jack plucks the string, there is really nothing more you can do, but he seems to be able to control the way the jack moves the string to get a kind of spring or crunchiness that intensifies the expression. Have a listen:

He also is known as a conductor both from the harpsichord and from the podium. Here is the big solo from the Fifth Brandenberg. I don't think that's his real hair:

And here he is conducting a Bach cantata. The three-hundred and some cantatas by Bach are probably the greatest collection of music that is not widely known to the musical public.

Here he is playing some Couperin:

Indeed, it is hard to find any music from the 16th to the 18th century that he was not master of, for harpsichord or organ, or ensembles including those instruments. Not long ago Sony released a box of his recordings in this edition of 14 discs, which I purchased and enjoy greatly, but which no longer seems to be available. However, there is this one, even bigger with 21 discs.

One of my favorite photos of a musician was one on the cover of a disc of Leonhardt playing Buxtehude. He was sitting at the harpsichord in a white room. The only other items in the room were wall to wall shelves of scores. Now that is a dedicated musician...