Saturday, June 30, 2012

Electronic Dance Music

There is supposedly a 'controversy' over Deadmau5 saying that a 'live' show is pretty much
i just roll up with a laptop and a midi controller and “select” tracks n hit a spacebar
(That's taken from his blog, linked from this story in the LA Times.) He goes on to explain
you know what makes the EDM show the crazy amazing show that it is?  you guys do, the fans, the people who came to appreciate the music, the lights, all the other people who came, we just facilitate the means and the pretty lights and the draw of more awesome people like you by our studio productions. 
Let's have a little history of "electronic dance music", shall we? It is a kind of music developed for use in night clubs/dance clubs and a fundamental principle is a heavy, unvarying beat. To this end DJs ("disc jockeys") put together sets of tunes and synchronize them to a single beat. A sort of predecessor to this was the Donna Summer song "I Feel Love" from 1977.

As you can hear, apart from the voice, everything on the recording is electronic using synthesizers and drum machines, not acoustic instruments and musicians. This simplifies both production and consistency enormously. Plus, nobody has to put in any hours learning how to play an instrument. Or is that a plus? Electronica, or the replacement of acoustic instruments with electronic sequencing, continued to infiltrate the pop world. One group in the 1980s that was typical of this trend was the Eurhythmics. Here is one of their songs:

 Let's have a look at a Deadmau5 show:

OK, cool lights. It works, obviously. Everyone is having a good time and there is this mysterious figure up there, wearing the mouse head, mostly concealed behind some sort of console. Hitting the space bar on his laptop.

Now here's the funny thing: I decided to check if these tempi were as uniform as they seemed to be, so I opened up my music notation software (which also can play whatever I notate) and put in a bunch of measures of a simple bass drum beat in 4/4. The default tempo in the program is 120 beats per minute. So I just left it at that and went back to compare it with the songs. The Donna Summer tune is, oddly enough, 120 bpm. The Eurhythmics song is, oddly enough, 120 bpm. And the Deadmau5 song is, oddly enough, 120 bpm. I chose these songs, pretty much at random, before I checked the tempi.

It couldn't possibly be that everyone just uses the default tempo in their software, could it? Naaah, maybe the software defaults to 120 bpm because everyone uses that tempo just because it is the perfect tempo.

I have developed a bit of an allergy to all music that is thumping at me at 120 bpm, though. It's the musical equivalent to every commercial food product being loaded down with high-fructose corn syrup.

Crazy. Amazing.

Honestly, I can remember when music was in DIFFERENT tempos. Not all the same tempo. Some of those tempos were slow...

Rosen on Freedom

I have mentioned before that the three greatest writers and critics of music of today are Joseph Kerman, Richard Taruskin and Charles Rosen. A recent article in the New York Review of Books is a great example. Rosen writes on Freedom and Art and shows both brilliance of understanding and breadth of knowledge. With scholars like this, it sometimes seems as if they have read--and listened to--simply everything!

Rosen points out that art, especially music, has an inherent freedom and fluidity of meaning. Society lives by accepted mutual conventions, but in art these conventions can be subverted. The archetypal musical example is the deceptive cadence: everything is prepared for a normal cadential conclusion to the harmonic progression, but instead of ending up on the tonic, we end up on the submediant. Rosen's examples are more complex, of course. He cites passages in Mozart and Beethoven that exemplify in music the urge for political freedom that was so strong towards the end of the 18th century.

A lot of the essay is about the divergence between style and idea, between the signified and the signifier. In music you can write a simple dance that does nothing but exemplify the essentials of the form--but composers worth their salt usually do a lot more. The music takes on a life of its own, a playful or profound flourishing of the simple dance into something more. There are a host of examples: the Alla danza tedesca from Beethoven's String Quartet op 130 in B flat is a pretty good one:

Or the music could furnish an ironic version--not a subtext, because there is nothing "sub" about it--but an expression that is really at odds with the form. Shostakovich is the first place to look. Take the sardonic waltz that is the second movement of his Fifth Symphony:

But go and read the whole essay as a brilliant example of what music criticism is at its best.

Friday, June 29, 2012

This is Your Brain on Avant-Garde Music

My apologies for not posting more frequently. Too many other things claiming my time lately and I have a couple of posts simmering that ended up taking a lot more time to put together. You will see them in a day or so. But in the meantime I ran across an article in the Telegraph that I missed when it came out. The title is "Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope." You should go read the article. You just know I'm going to be all over that one! My first reaction is "musicians hate modern journalism because it is written by people who have little musical knowledge (journalists) talking about research done by people with even less (scientists)."


This passage is rather interesting:

Mr Ball believes that many traditional composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven subconsciously followed strict musical formula to produce music that was easy on the ear by ensuring it contained patterns that could be picked out by the brain.In the early twentieth century, however, composers led by Schoenberg began to rally against the traditional conventions of music to produce compositions which lack tonal centres, known as atonal music.
 Filtered through the ignorance of the journalist, it is sometimes hard to tell if the source, Mr. Ball in this case, is also musically ignorant. "Many traditional composers subconsciously followed strict musical formula [sic]"? How bizarre! As if they simply had no conscious awareness of what they were doing! I would be a lot more sympathetic to these fumbling efforts to do research into music if the researchers did not constantly exhibit the most insulting condescension to their subject matter: composers and music.

My two basic problems with this article and virtually all the others in the popular press on music is that they display such a shallow understanding of music as to be barely worth reading and due to this, the research and   the report on it are so misleading as to constitute misinformation about music.

For example, one researcher says in the article that the structures of modern music lead to
an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and the constant failures to anticipate what will happen next means that there is no pleasure from accurate prediction."
If you happened to know something about how music is structured and how all composers constantly set up expectations and defeat them, then you could talk about this with a little more significance.

There are three areas in which you need to have real knowledge and understanding before you can write about music. These are

  • The history of music
  • The theory of music
  • The aesthetics of music
A little knowledge of these would not only have enabled this research, which has some interesting aspects, to be more accurate and more useful, but could have communicated the results more effectively. To end, "Smoke on the Water", chosen as a test for some "brainwave" research.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tempo Rubato

One of the things I do on this blog is talk about some of the fundamental concepts of music history, composition and performance. One especially tricky one is tempo rubato. Literally this means "robbed time". It can be contrasted with the other concept of 'groove' or, more traditionally, strict time. Most music has a pulse, by analogy with the pulse of the human body. Pulse is one of the most fundamental ways music affects the listener as it does so somatically, through the body. Here is a good example of pulse:

I put up a whole post on pulse here. As I talk about there, pulse is not necessarily a rigid thing. In most current pop music they use drum tracks that are rigid and I find them a bit unpleasant for that reason. There is a difference, to my ear, between a rigid drum track and a 'groove' created by a human drummer. The differences are probably in minute anticipations of certain beats and delays of others. The energy of a 'groove' comes from these slight variations. Here is a good example:

Ginger Baker, the drummer, is laying down a great groove there.

Tempo rubato is when you avoid a groove and let each beat have its own space. What the heck do I mean by that? It is hard to talk about because it is not quantifiable and because it is very specific to the individual musical moment. Here is a classic example:

The music of Chopin is most often associated with the idea of rubato. Listen to how each beat is slightly different in length from the others. The downbeat of the bar is usually delayed slightly -- 'placed' for greater emphasis. Phrases move ahead in the middle and pull back as they complete. Rich harmonies are lingered on, while plainer ones are passed over lightly. The rubato is so interwoven with the melody and harmony that it is difficult to separate them. This is as it should be as the placement of the beat responds to what is happening in the melody and harmony. I used the phrase "placement of the beat"; this is the crucial concept: in rubato, the beat does not just occur, it is placed, located just where it needs to be. Even dance music, when it is used as concert music, has rubato. Take this mazurka by Chopin, for example:

Beautiful examples there of how holding back the beat is contrasted with pushing it forward. I wish I could could contrast a performance played strictly with the one above, but I can't find one on YouTube! Alas! That would be the perfect illustration. Indeed, this is how a teacher would demonstrate the idea in a lesson: by playing a passage strictly and then with an appropriate rubato. You will just have to imagine it...

A rigid performance of Chopin, or any of the host of pieces of music that need rubato, sounds like cold oatmeal tastes compared to a performance with rubato.

It is not just solo piano music that uses it, of course. Since the innovation of the conductor in the early 19th century, even orchestral music uses rubato. Beethoven, one of the first conductors, was "much concerned to achieve a proper tempo rubato" according to his contemporary Ignaz von Seyfried. There is also the famous story that Beethoven, initially delighted with the invention of the metronome, after a while said that his metronome markings were only good for the first few bars, after that you are on your own!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Opera that Caused a Revolution

In the 20th century the values and dreams of the middle class were expressed in the cinema, but in the 19th century it was opera. But opera, as it was largely supported by the state, was also the site for nationalism and the expression of the shared history of the nation. In France, the government was the direct sponsor of opera and one opera in particular had a fascinating history as it is linked to not one, but two revolutions. This was La muette de Portici an unusual opera in several ways, not least because it took its name from a non-singing character. The libretto was by Eugene Scribe, creator of dozens of dramas set by every opera composer of the era. La muette, with music by Daniel Auber, is a five-act tragedy very like a Hollywood blockbuster of today. In the last act the characters and complications accumulate on stage in a truly grand finale with the leading characters, members of a love triangle, a crowd of fishermen, the advancing army of the Viceroy, a crowd of revolutionaries, and the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. Spielberg and Lucas have nothing on this!

The regime felt perfectly comfortable promoting this story because the moral was that revolutions, all revolutions, go badly, with the ordinary people suffering the most. The audiences however, took rather a different moral and were inspired by the heroic way the people were depicted. The opera was performed in 1828 by the Paris Opera and has been described as an "accessory before the fact" to the July Revolution of 1830 that ended the Restoration and made France a constitutional monarchy.

The runaway hit bestseller from the opera, disseminated in sheet music and barrel organ cylinders where it was heard everywhere on the street was a duet from Act II, "Amour sacree de la patrie" (Sacred love of fatherland). This was applauded with special fervor at every performance as a kind of anti-government demonstration.

When the opera was premiered in Belgium, then a protectorate of the Netherlands, in August of 1830, the authorities were especially concerned and cut out great portions of the opera, particularly scenes of mob violence. But they left in "Amour sacre de la patrie". It was so well-known by then that the whole audience was on their feet singing along. By the end of Act IV, most of the audience had left the theater and joined a growing crowd that occupied the offices of the newspaper, courthouse and Hotel de Ville, the main government offices. Then they stormed the municipal armory. In a few days the revolution had spread to the rest of Belgium and the Dutch withdrew. Within a few months, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had been installed as king of the Belgians. His descendants still rule Belgium as sovereign monarchs to this day.

Now let's listen to that rabble-rousing duet from La Muete de Portici. For some reason, Blogger refuses to embed the link. Here is the URL on YouTube. The big tune starts at the 1:26 mark:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Stolen Music

A long time ago I had a student come for a couple of lessons on guitar. He didn't last very long as a student, but one thing about the encounter has stuck with me. He had a big three ring binder with him containing hundreds of pages of music. Every single page was photocopied from an original or another copy. He had never actually purchased a piece of music in his life! This is not so unusual of course. When I was studying in Spain there were copies of many pieces of music floating around in second, third, even seventh-generation photocopy. But they were photocopies of hand-written scores with fingerings. That's why we were copying them. You couldn't buy these versions.

But the photocopy machine spelled the permanent decline of the music publishing industry. When it is easy to simply photocopy a three or four page piece for pennies a page, who would pay several dollars for the score? The answer is, just about no-one. So, publishers publish fewer scores, especially of obscure pieces. That was decades ago. Now, you can download a surprising number of scores from the internet and just print them out.

But the phenomenon has spread to the general consumption of music. Fewer and fewer people pay for music. Or, at least, they pay nothing to the artists who create the music. Here is a recent article in Salon that summarizes the situation pretty well. It turns out that people are paying to hear music--just not to the musicians! They are paying Verizon, ATT and others for internet access; they are paying Google and Apple for software and hardware--they are paying thousands of dollars for music! But the artists are getting nothing. Well, of course, this is over-simplifying. I'm sure Rihanna and Lady Gaga have a few bucks coming in. But the numbers say that recorded music revenue is down 66% since 1999 which means that a whole lot of musicians--probably the most interesting ones--are not making any money.

It's all about the gatekeepers. The lords who could command entry to the bridge, or access to the mill, could absorb revenue from everyone who needed those things. The record companies, as long as they were the only ones that could manufacture vinyl records, could absorb revenue from everyone who wanted to purchase music. Now the gatekeepers are the computer companies, the internet service providers and the search software people--without them, you can't gain access to the music.

My attitude might seem strange, but I think that access to music actually involves something that is not a commodity, digital or otherwise. The 'music' is available to anyone who can perceive and absorb it. The guy with a $5 harmonica who can really play it has the 'music'. The guy downloading thousands of songs to his iPod who only hears them in the background, does not have the 'music'.

I have no idea where this is going, but the article is worth reading for some clues. One thing is certain, the consumption of music is going through some huge changes. Not just economic ones as the article is talking about, but also psychological and aesthetic ones. What kind of world is it where everyone has a permanent musical soundtrack to their lives that they never listen to and probably don't even know how to listen to?

I would rather understand a few pieces of music than have 'available' thousands upon thousands. For me it is the understanding that is important, not the possession. But I'm the wacky fringe! It is what the consumers decide that drives the marketplace. As a consumer, if I like a piece of music and want to own it, I really don't feel right just downloading it. I would much rather buy it and hope some money goes to the musicians. I'm the same with DVDs. I don't buy pirated copies. Just a personal decision. You start to look at this a lot differently when you have released a recording and someone comes up to you one day and says, "oh, I made a copy of your record for my friend who wanted to hear it. You don't mind, do you?"

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Theory of Pop

I don't know who is behind Hooktheory, but a post is up doing what seems to be a rather broad analysis of harmony in popular songs. That seems interesting, so I had a look. Here is the post. This will make more sense if you go have a read. Don't bother with the comments, though.

Two things strike me about this. Firstly, it is a statistical analysis of how often chords appear, though they don't seem to measure how long chords are held for, which seems pretty important. Secondly, it is a probability analysis of the likelihood of one chord following another. If you scroll down you will see a chart titled "Chords following em [E minor]". That looks pretty wacky too. 59% of the time E minor is followed by F major in the key of C major? That's a pretty weak progression. But maybe that is, statistically, true. The problem is that all this seems quite oblivious to the function of harmony.

I've been raging about pseudo-science lately and how researchers doing research into music who know absolutely nothing about music are just embarrassing. This site is a little different. For one thing, it is digging into the music itself instead of coming at if from left field somewhere. Remember the yellow-bellied marmot in this post? Hooktheory has a page where they put all their analyses. Here that is. Here is the analysis of "California Gurls" by Katy Perry.

The first thing I did was look for a Beatles song to see how that came out. Take the analysis of "Hey Jude" for example. The authors know something about music theory, which is refreshing, but not quite enough. Look at the "outro" (I think "coda" might be the better word) for "Hey Jude". They give the progression as I, IV of IV, IV, I. The idea of a secondary dominant is a long-standing one in music theory, but it really can't be extended to the idea of a secondary subdominant which is what is being claimed so blithely here. IV of IV? S'existe pas!

The idea of a secondary dominant is a powerful one because the relationship of V or better, V7, to I is so strong that it can be transferred to any chord. There is no strong relationship of IV to I. IV, in traditional theory, prepares V, that is its role. So the progression I, IV of IV, IV, I just isn't plausible because the relationships claimed are not plausible. The progression is actually I, bVII, IV, I. This is interesting because it is so very coda-like. In common-practice harmony, the coda has the role of lowering the tension and it very commonly uses subdominant harmony to do so. Interesting that this song, with its huge coda, does the same. But what is also happening here is the creation of an ambiguity. Any time you have an ambiguous progression that fades out, it can be an undecided question just what the final chord is. For example, suppose that the key is not F but Bb? We then have the progression V, IV, I, V. That's a lot more probable than the one they suggest and just as probable as the one I first suggested. What is actually happening here is something that always happens when you have IV I progressions. It either sounds like a plagal cadence, which is inherently weak, or it sounds like the IV is actually the I. The coda to "Hey Jude" is interesting, I suggest, because it floats between both possibilities.

Well, that's my stab at doing some popular music theory. I would suggest to the authors of Hooktheory that instead of doing a statistical analysis of 1300 songs (and not coming up with much), that they pick a few good songs and try and figure out how the harmony functions.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Milos Karadalic

Milos Karadalic is a young guitarist from Montenegro, now resident in London, who seems to be today's new star of the guitar. His second album, on Deutsche Grammophon, will be released in July. He seems to be doing everything right, which is interesting to me, because I tended to do everything wrong in my career! He attended the Royal Academy of Music, studying with Michael Lewin, who is working with Milos on career development and creative assistance--meaning that he did a lot of the transcriptions on his first album. Milos also seems to have a real friend in Adam Sweeting at the Telegraph who just did a second feature article on him. Here is the first, headlined : "Classical Guitar Has a New Hero". Self-confidence is a huge plus when you are building your career and Milos has a lot. He says, “The guitar needs a renaissance. There isn’t a more accessible or beautiful instrument, and I want to bring it to a new generation of listeners.” That's probably true... not just the guitar, but music in general could use a renaissance right about now!

Milos loves the music he plays and loves the way he plays it:
"Oriental [by Granados] is the most exposed piece I have ever played, and you have to really dig inside yourself to express it. I listened to my recording again last night, after not hearing it for a while, and it’s really magical.”
Adam Sweeting's second feature on Milos took the form of an interview, cleverly disguised as a guitar lesson. It is headlined "Milos Karadaglic: a guitar lesson from the classical maestro". Apart from the predictable discussion of how difficult the classical guitar is to play, there is this interesting quote:
“Segovia had bananas for fingers, it’s really weird when he plays,” he said. “But you can’t say his technique was bad, because the body does what it needs to do to achieve a musical result. It’s like [opera singer] Maria Callas – the authority and charisma are unbelievable and unrepeatable. Nobody has perfect technique on any instrument, there’s always something that can be improved.”
After this setup, one does start to wonder, just what does Milos sound like? This video is featured in the Telegraph article, obviously meant to promote the new album. For some reason, I can't embed the video, but here is the link to YouTube. Sorry about the advert!

Huh! Well, after all that stuff about 'classical maestro', it is a bit surprising, isn't it? Quizás, quizás, quizás is a popular song from 1947 by the Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farres. The arrangement is quite nice and the video is very well done. But. But this isn't classical music except that the guy playing it is a classical guitarist. Let's see what else there is on YouTube. Here he is playing the aforementioned "Oriental" a piece by Granados, originally for piano:

That is certainly classical music and it is played well. But it is a very simplified arrangement (though a well-done one) and the performance is rather sentimental and wandering. Let's listen to one more. Here he is playing the very difficult "Asturias" by Albeniz:

Milos certainly has the technique for that virtuosic piece. Nothing wrong with it, but the middle section, where one's musicality is tested, was rather flat, don't you think?

So here is what I think of Milos: he is a good guitarist, with lots of technique. He has male-model good looks, which he exploits to further his career--and why not? He seems to be doing everything right in terms of his career so more power to him. But, I find him a bit dull as a musician. There doesn't seem to be anything under the surface and there seems to be a real danger that he will fall victim to the siren call of crossover; doing fluffy arrangements of popular tunes in order to appeal to people who don't like actual classical music.

But there are some important things to note here: he is paying a lot of attention to those things that seem necessary to build a career these days: the look, the promotion, and the media appearances (along with lots of coverage in the Telegraph he also seems to get lots of television appearances in England, France and Germany). He is recording stuff that people not really into classical music will probably like. He is recording the tunes that are perennial favorites such as the Spanish Romance. And most importantly, he seems to have put together a team: his guitar teacher as creative advisor, a media person (Adam Sweeting), the people who do the recording and videos--a whole team of people. This is the interesting thing: in the kind of environment we have today, this is probably the crucial element. It helps if you can play, helps just as much if you are very good-looking, but even that is not enough if you don't have the creative and promotional team. Take note, all you aspiring young classical musicians.

Just one thing: if all you do is crossover and the occasional classical warhorse, played with more melodrama than insight, then you really aren't causing a renaissance, are you? What you are doing is becoming a kind of pop musician... Does Milos really want to be the Vanessa Mae of the classical guitar?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

B minor Symphonies

Richard Taruskin's five-volume history of music, the Oxford History of Western Music, keeps giving me ideas for posts. In discussing Schubert's Unfinished Symphony he mentions the very few other symphonies in this key. Let's have a look at them.

You would think that there would be scads of symphonies in this key, only two sharps away from A minor, but no. The only previous one by a major composer is one of a group of six written by C. P. E. Bach in 1773 for Baron van Swieten. It is in three movements, Allegretto, Larghetto and Presto. It is not a lengthy work and is for strings alone.

The decade of the 1770s was noted for its "storm and stress" mood in music. The symphony had traditionally been rather a cheerful, convivial kind of music. But composers soon started to use the resources of the orchestra to paint some darker moods. Still, until the 19th century, symphonies in minor keys are relatively rare. Mozart's 40th Symphony in G minor stands out for that reason. In 1772 Joseph Haydn wrote a symphony in B major and cast the second movement in B minor. The work is scored for two oboes, bassoon, two horns and strings. Here is the whole symphony. The second movement, Poco Adagio starts around the 5:30 mark. It is in the style of a siciliana.

Given that fairly modest background to the idea of a symphony in B minor, Schubert's Unfinished stands out even more strongly. Every composer, at least in those days, probably had a few unfinished symphonies in his drawer. When you start to compose quite often the music just doesn't unfold as it should, or you get side-tracked into some dull ideas or just lose your way. So there they sit, sketches of potential works. Schubert had a few unfinished symphonies of his own. But The Unfinished is a bit different. There is a manuscript full score of the first two movements, two pages of a Scherzo, a piano sketch of the rest of the Scherzo and that's it. The nickname "Unfinished" may be just that, a nickname for a piece that Schubert decided was complete after just two movements. It was written in 1822, before the "Great C Major" that I discussed in these two posts. Like a number of Schubert's larger works it was never performed during his life. The Unfinished wasn't even published until 1866!

The symphony begins with a mysterious "preface theme" in the low strings. In the score it is phrased in two-measure groups, but it is just as easily heard as 2 + 3 + 3 as I have bracketed it in the example below. Here is the opening group of themes from the first movement:

Click to enlarge

Despite the fact that the nearest model for Schubert in the symphony genre was Beethoven, and despite the fact that Beethoven did use "preface themes" (usually to replace a slow introduction), this sounds nothing like Beethoven. That opening theme in the bass is very mysterious. You could say, "yes, but Beethoven had a very mysterious beginning to his 9th Symphony in D minor, did he not?" Yep, but the 9th Symphony of Beethoven was written in 1824, two years after this one! This symphony, apart from being in a very unusual key, has also very unusual themes. The texture here, with the strings accompanying the winds in the third theme above, owes little to Mozart and Beethoven, but we find it in Rossini, in the overture to the Barber of Seville, for example. Now let's listen to the music. Here is the whole Unfinished with the score:

There is just a touch of the operatic in the first movement, especially in the forzando chords in the full orchestra that from time to time punctuate the texture, followed by suspenseful pizzicati. Twice we return to that bass "preface theme" and each time it seems more ominous. What Schubert is doing here is inventing how to create romantic subjectivity in music. This was first done in the smaller forms, the songs and impromptus heard in the salons where Schubert achieved his success. Now he is moving it to the larger concert hall. He had no immediate influence because no-one heard this music until the second half of the century, but when they did, it made a huge impact on the romantic symphonists like Brahms and even Mahler.

There was one other symphonist who felt the impact of the Unfinished and that was Tchaikovsky whose 6th symphony is not only in B minor, but also ends with a slow movement! Here it is:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Music by Kepler 4665989

I love these odd stories about music that appear in the popular media. Here is a story in the Huffington Post about how "Georgia Tech Scientists Use Star Data To Create Tune." They took observational data from a binary star, the "Kepler 4665989" of the post title, and used "Sonification Sandbox" software in the university's Sonification Lab (which seems to be in the department of psychology) to create a brief melody. A reggae band, Echo Movement, is going to use it to create a song.


I tried to embed the tune, but you will have to go to the story and follow this link to hear it:

I took a minute and wrote it down in conventional notation. Here it is:

Click to enlarge

Honestly, you couldn't get a duller tune if you tried: a four measure phrase in F major, one measure dominant harmony, one measure tonic harmony, one measure dominant harmony, one measure tonic harmony. So, in what sense have "Scientists have created a melody that's truly out of this world, turning numerical data from two stars in our galaxy into music for a reggae-rock band."? Bruce Walker, a professor in Georgia Tech's school of psychology, said in a statement. "It’s not often that we have a chance to help an actual star compose music." Only in a world where almost no-one knows anything about music would a statement like this make any sense.

Way out there in the galaxy somewhere Kepler 4665989 is alternating between dim and bright as its companion star crosses between it and the Earth. The data gathered from this is "cleaned up" somehow and given to the folks at the Sonification Lab where they feed it into their Sonification Sandbox software. Someone has programmed this software to take whatever you feed into it and turn it into trite tunes. The 'composer' here is whoever programmed the software. You can just tell that the Sonfication Lab doesn't have any contact with actual composers, can't you?

So here we are again: another bit of pseudo-science passed off as having something to do with music.

Please, all you evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and astronomers out there, either stop doing these extremely dumb experiments and even dumber 'compositions' or learn something about music.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Lame Pseudo-Science

I've written before about how amazingly, startlingly lame scientific research into music seems these days. Here is the latest: a story about how to write 'scary' music with a cameo appearance by the yellow-bellied marmot. The original research seems to make modest, rather dull claims which are tarted up for the popular article. It is always thus.

Ironically, the image and opening paragraphs, which 'sell' the story, go directly against the actual research. The theme to Jaws uses low bass sounds in piano, strings and brass with percussion interjections.

The sounds used in the research are high, screechy sounds made by a marmot in peril. The researcher, Daniel Blumstein, calls these "non-linear" sounds. I think I can sum up this study as follows: some animals make screechy sounds when terrified. Perhaps if similar sounds are inserted into films scores, they might stimulate fear arousal in the audience. For a laugh, go listen to the lame examples at the first link. Film composers come up with much better ways to write ominous, foreboding or scary music. As per the example from Jaws, composed by the ubiquitous John Williams.

Scientists, and, it seems, especially 'evolutionary biologists' seem to have absolutely no understanding whatsoever of music. But, armed with remarkably irrelevant research, they presume to tell us how music works. Give it a rest, guys. You haven't come up with one piece of research so far that hasn't made me laugh out loud.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Two Rooftop Concerts

I often talk about aesthetic quality in music and how it is not entirely subjective. You can usually see major differences in quality just by listening to things side by side. I just ran across this rooftop concert filmed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1968. Ladies and Gentlemen, Jefferson Airplane:

It doesn't get any better after that obscene, annoying and disrespectful introduction. And the camerawork! I'm still a little seasick. That was a bunch of amateurs. Let me be clear: the song was undistinguished sludge, lacking any interesting qualities in melody, harmony or rhythm; the drumming was dull and confused; the guitar-playing was dreary and sloppy; the singing--I don't think even they thought they could sing. Mind you, Grace Slick was pretty good-looking back then.

Here, filmed a year later in 1969, is how the professionals do it:

Everything, I mean everything, about this is many, many levels above Jeff-Air. The band is tight, the songs are good and very distinctive, the drumming is great, the guitar-playing is great, the singing is great. And, and, they are not there to be jerks and annoy everyone for five blocks in every direction. Professionals in the best sense of the word. Any questions?

Smoke and Mirrors

Even though I took to classical music at a young age like a cheetah takes to a herd of gazelle, it was only a few years before I started noticing that, as in all forms of art, not everything that glitters is gold. Classical music can be as susceptible to smoke, mirrors and hand-waving as any other form of public entertainment. Mozart once called Abbe Vogler (Georg Joseph Vogler 1749 - 1814, teacher of Carl Maria von Weber and others) "a faker pure and simple" and there are many other instances. Sometimes, of course, composers say nasty things about one another just because they are competitors. But other times, the criticism is true as classical music most certainly does have its fakers.

Those selling us fool's gold can do it most easily in the throes of a revolution in music, before any aesthetic criteria have become established. It is more difficult at the end of an era, when only real creative ingenuity can enliven tired forms. The ancients thought music--all art--was mimesis, imitation of nature. But this usually boils down to the creation of illusion. This being so, we can never be quite sure when a composer is having us on. His basic job always involves fooling us to some extent. Take, for example, a composer who decides to depict or represent a battle (the battle of Marignano, 1515, to be specific) using only voices and a text of nonsense syllables. These singers play up the humor, but was it originally meant to be serious? How can we tell? The performance below, of Clement Janequin's La guerre, is done with six singers. Originally it was in four voices with a fifth added by Philippe Verdelot, so I'm not sure where the sixth part comes from.

Another piece of imitation in music is by the viola de gamba player Marin Marais who depicted surgery for removal of a stone from the bladder in his Tableau de l'opération de la taille of 1725.

Again, are we supposed to take this seriously? Or is is meant to be funny? Perhaps it depends on whether you have suffered from a kidney stone! Would Mozart call Marais "a faker pure and simple"? In this and the battle piece by Janequin, music is used to 'fake' the sounds of a battle and an operation. As both these pieces have survived, though perhaps only as curiosities, we should probably term them successes. I can imagine lots of imitators whose fakery was less successful, but the music of which has been lost. This is the problem with trying to find good examples of bad music from hundreds of years ago: the winnowing process of history has eliminated them. So let's look a little closer to home. I'm not quite sure how to categorize the next piece. This is a movement from the 'Toy' Symphony by Haydn, a piece for small orchestra and toy instruments as 'soloists'. This piece can be a barrel of laughs especially with either members of the symphony board of directors as soloists or random people from the audience. Great for light relief.

Now here is where the fakery comes: this symphony is not by "Haydn", neither by Joseph, nor his less well-known brother Michael. An early manuscript version of it was copied by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father, in 1759. But even he might not be the author as some research points to Edmund Angerer, an Austrian Benedictine monk working in the later 18th century. Oh, and it's not really a symphony either. The original title was Cassation in G major

Here is another funny piece, the Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio in G major, Op. 129 by none other than Beethoven. It is better known by the title "Rage Over a Lost Penny" which was added to the title page of the autograph by someone else.

This dates from between 1795 and 98, when Beethoven was in his mid-twenties. It is not, as the opus number seems to show, a late work. Beethoven didn't think too much of it as he didn't bother finishing it--the manuscript is incomplete. The publisher Diabelli had it finished and published it after Beethoven's death. It is a pretty good example of Beethoven's rough and earthy humor, though.

So I still haven't found any certain examples of real fakery! I mean music that is not what it seems to be. I mean, music that is presented as 'authentic', but isn't. Sorry for the scare quotes on 'authentic' but it is hard to be sure exactly what is meant by that. Even great and profound music can have aspects that are ironic--just take Shostakovich for example. But here is one genuine fake:

Milli Vanilli won a Grammy in 1990 but it ended in scandal when it was discovered that they didn't actually sing, they just lip-synched to someone else's vocal track. The person who posted this clip to YouTube hilariously comments that "a cursory view will reveal that they are lip-synching." Well, sure: everyone on the Grammys is lip-synching! But usually to themselves-however autotuned! The trouble with pop music these days is that it is hard to tell the real from the fake because most of the 'real' is 'faked'. What happened with Milli Vanilli is that a producer in Germany hired song-writers and arrangers to create 'material', hired session musicians to record it and hired models/dancers to lip-synch it. Which is pretty much how a lot of other musical 'acts' have been formed. The Monkees, for example.

The avant-garde seems to be excellent fertile ground for all kinds of fakery. One reason I suspect this is that composers for the last century have been furiously jockeying for position by inventing something new as often as they can. Some of these 'something news' are pretty unconvincing. For a time in the 60s or 70s a brilliant new musical composition could consist of writing down a phrase on a piece of paper like "sound and allow to ring a C major chord for as long as you can..." Then taking the paper and burning it and putting the ashes in a jar. Later on, in a concert, you could walk on stage, take out the jar, open it and dump it over your head while moaning quietly. Believe it or not, this is only partly made up! Speaking of "brilliant", this is a piece by a composer I have always suspected was having us on. Brillante for piano by Sylvano Bussotti:

Now compare this to the piano music improvised (?) by Gerard Depardieu in this scene from Green Card. Wait for it, it's worth it!

It's not Mozart! So, of these two examples of avant-garde piano music, which is fake and which is authentic? And which is better music? Even more pointedly, which performance is more enjoyable?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Great Electric Guitar Players

The electric guitar is a fairly new instrument. It was invented and popularized by Les Paul (1915 - 2009). The early electric guitar, essentially just an acoustic guitar with a pickup, had problems with feedback which Les Paul solved in 1940 by creating a solid body electric guitar. This basic design is the one still used: the body has no real acoustic properties, so won't feed back. Instead, the sound is a function of the strings and pickups. By 1952 the Gibson company was selling a commercial version, the Gibson "Les Paul":

Les Paul with an early prototype in 1947
The six string electric guitar proved to be enormously successful though it took a few more years before they perfected the necessary amplifier systems. It is probably better to think of the electric guitar as a music system including the guitar itself, a selection of foot pedals to modify the sound in various ways, and an amplification system that not only sends the sound out to the audience, but also modifies the sound.

The first generation of electric guitar players were probably so delighted that they could finally be heard alongside brass and drums, that they didn't do too much experimenting, though Les Paul is credited with quite a few innovations in multi-tracking. Here is what the first generation of electric rock n roll guitar players sounded like. Keith Richards makes a few cameos in this Chuck Berry clip, but I think you get the idea:

The early George Harrison comes out of this kind of playing with some "rockabilly" influence from Carl Perkins as well:

Here is George Harrison with a smooth, jazz-influenced solo (at the 1:08 mark):

Another influence that was to become important in the 60s was that of an earlier, non-electric, tradition from the black blues singers and guitarists of the 30s and later. Here is Robert Johnson, the most famous of these:

This kind of blues just kept being played and after the electric guitar came along, the guitar solo got to be a lot more important. Here is B. B. King, one of the great electric blues guitar players:

So take the rock n roll foundation, add in the blues influence, give the players some new sounds with the wah-wah and fuzz pedals, add in the experimenting with psychedelic drugs and you get a positive explosion of creative innovation from 1966 well into the 70s. One important figure is Eric Clapton, who was most influenced by the blues. Here he is at the beginning of his career:

And here he is using a wah-wah pedal a few years later with Cream on a song from the album Disraeli Gears:

That gives you a nice feel for the 60s. Incoherent lyrics--and camera work, probably due to drugs! But notice also the big amplifiers by Marshall and the sound of the wah-wah on guitar. Towards the end they get into the kind of inspired, rhythmically-complex improvisation that Cream was famous for. Eric Clapton's most famous guitar solo was one that for many years he got no credit for. When George Harrison needed some very special guitar playing on his song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" he asked his friend Eric to sit in, anonymously. Here is the result:

Eric Clapton is certainly a virtuoso and on electric guitar that means not only being able to use and control all the electronics, but also to use the long sustain to develop new kinds of vibrato not possible on acoustic instruments. But he is also a great musician and is able to use the resources of the electric guitar to create and shape solos that are powerfully expressive. He uses tone-color, volume, bent notes and other devices all constructed on the foundation of the blues, to create some remarkable solos that are really only comparable to the cadenzas of opera singers of the past.

Another great guitarist developing a new style built on the blues was Jimi Hendrix, a more spectacular soloist than Eric Clapton, but whose career ended prematurely. Here he is with an iconic song of the 60s, "Purple Haze":

That song also demonstrates some of the problems that began to pop up. As the music of the 60s left its roots behind and began experimenting with new techniques, it also began to become incoherent and self-indulgent. We see a small example here in the guitar solo from 1:30 to 1:40 where nothing relates to the rest of the song. Wild, instinctive and self-indulgent improvisation became the typical failing of the later 60s. Here is an example:

I can only repeat what the Emperor Joseph said to Mozart: "My dear fellow, there are simply too many notes!"

The era of the big electric guitar solo didn't last a long time. Bands like The Police and the Talking Heads largely banished the guitar solo and that continues with contemporary bands like Radiohead. Still, there was that golden period from the mid-60s to the mid-70s when it all started to go to seed, when the electric guitar solo strode the earth like a colossus. Here is a late example, where the guitar sounds very much like some ancient dinosaur coming to life. The solo is from 3:10 to 3:42 and the end, with the rising unisons, probably is a reference to Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" where he does the same thing.

The guitarist on "Beat It" also didn't get credited--nor paid! It was Eddie Van Halen. I probably should mention some other great guitarists who came along a bit later. Prince is certainly one. Just ignore the video for this song from the movie "Purple Rain" and listen to what you can do with an over-driven Stratocaster from around 3:40 to the end:

One last great guitarist is one who also died tragically young but seemed at times to be almost the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix. Here is Stevie Ray Vaughan doing an instrumental version of the Hendrix tune "Little Wing":

Monday, June 11, 2012

Great Guitar Players

I have played guitar for some forty-five years, so I'm starting to get the hang of it! I began on electric bass guitar and electric and acoustic six-string. When I discovered classical music, I switched to classical guitar. This was something of a religious conversion as it involved a wholesale transformation of my whole relationship with music. Now I consider myself more of a composer than a guitarist, but I still play nearly every day. So I have a fairly deep knowledge and understanding of guitar playing.

There are lots of lists of great guitar players out there, but they are usually compiled by fans, editors or amateur players based on their own exposure and perhaps sales. Let me see if I can put my own list together along with the reasons for my choices. First, some great classical guitarists. Then, another day, I will talk about some great electric guitarists.

Great Classical Guitarists

Andres Segovia is the great master, of course, though he was not alone in the early part of the century. His two rivals were Miguel Llobet and Agustin Barrios, both great guitarists whose fame was overshadowed by Segovia's very successful career. Segovia had a concert career that stretched from 1909 to 1987. He played his last concert just a few months before passing away, at age 94. Here is a clip of a lovely piece by Tarrega, Capricho Arabe that captures his sound better than most of the clips on YouTube:

After Segovia there are really four great 20th and now 21st century guitarists. The oldest of them is Julian Bream, now in his late 70s and retired. His father was a jazz guitarist. Julian Bream, apart from being an extraordinary virtuoso, is responsible for a whole generation of composers writing for the guitar as a serious instrument. We owe music by Britten, Walton, Berkeley, Henze and a number of others to his efforts. Here he is playing two bagatelles by William Walton:

John Williams has strictly limited his touring for a long time now as he found it did not agree with him. But his occasional concerts and long list of recordings demonstrates that he is one of the great guitarists of the century. His father, Len Williams, ran a guitar school in London and young John played from an early age and studied with Segovia from his early teens. He was perhaps the first guitarist to demonstrate truly effortless technical mastery as we can hear in this performance of Un sueño en la Floresta by Agustin Barrios. This kills two birds with one stone as it gives you an idea of what Barrios' own playing might have sounded like. There are a few recordings of Barrios, but the sound quality is poor. John Williams was responsible for the rediscovery of a lot of Barrios' music.

Coming from a purely Spanish tradition, Pepe Romero studied with his father who studied with a student of Francisco Tarrega and thereby continues a tradition that stretches back well into the 19th century. Pepe's playing is characterized by a warm, rich sound, a lyrical gift for phrasing, and technical mastery. Here he is playing the Serenata by Malats as an encore after a concerto performance in Bogota, Columbia. He tells the story about how his father met his mother at the beginning. The piece starts at around the 2:30 mark. Late in the piece is a very tricky chromatic scale. I doubt you will ever hear it played with more grace and ease than here.

The youngest member of this exclusive club is Manuel Barrueco, born in Cuba, but moved to the US with his parents as a teenager. He studied with Aaron Shearer at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. His technique is absolutely extraordinary with a precision no-one else seems to match. But it is always in service to his musical vision which is powerful and expressive. His first recording was of some Villa-Lobos etudes and they were played with such authority that when John Williams heard the recording, the first thing he did was take it out to Julian Bream's place in the country and play it for him. The older generation are very much aware of these young guys coming up! Alas, none of his Villa-Lobos is available on YouTube, but here is a pretty spectacular Asturias by Albeniz:

There is a host of younger artists, some of them with extraordinary promise like Ana Vidovic, Jerome Ducharme, Scott Tennant, Tilman Hoppstock and Timo Korhonen, who will carry the guitar far into the 21st century.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get on with writing some music for them...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

An Education in Music, Part 2

I was saying that singing bass in the Mozart Requiem taught me more than anything else in first year university music. Sure, it was a big class, but believe me singing a part right in the middle of a double fugue is an experience like nothing else. Here, have a listen. The double fugue, on the kyrie eleison text, starts at the 6:43 mark:

There is simply nothing better for getting inside a great piece of music than singing/playing it. Good music departments, are, I think, immune to a lot of the quality degradation that other departments of humanities have experienced because they are, to an important extent, immune to theory and it is theory, critical theory to be specific, that has wreaked so much damage in the humanities. Music departments certainly have theory where music is studied from a theoretical point of view, but it is still loosely connected with the practice of music, which keeps it on an even keel. And what music departments mostly do is quite practical. They perform music. Every student has to get up at the end of the year and perform before a jury. This is no formality, believe me. In good departments, this is a very serious test of whether you have made progress or not. At McGill when I was there, at the graduate level, candidates for the master's degree in performance had to give two public recitals and quite a few were failed. If this happened they had to go before a committee and make an argument as to whether they even ought to be allowed to repeat the recital. What keeps music departments from sliding into irrelevancy is this practical side. You have to be able to deliver the goods: walk on stage, play a concert.

Now musicologists don't do this, of course, and it is in musicology that a bit of decay has set in. But musicology still has a lot of important jobs to do and again, they are measured by something practical. At the end of the day, does it help us perform, compose or understand music better? If not, why are you wasting our time?

Going back to Mozart for a minute, performing and studying music like this keeps one very humble. I think this is important. For one thing, it keeps your standards high. I have noticed quite a few young composers these days that seem to take what they are doing pretty lightly. They toss off little pieces or bigger pieces with insouciance. Well, good. But a lot of it sounds like it was tossed off. Like a salad. I think if they spent a little more time in the company of Mozart and Bach, they would be a little more humble and a little less insouciant.

Speaking of Bach, he is the one that really keeps us all humble. It is Bach that seems still to be teacher of us all. Beethoven famously remarked "Nicht BachMeer sollte er heissen" making a pun on Bach which in German means a stream or brook. The phrase is "not a brook, but rather a sea should he be called". Mozart got up from his seat in the Thomaskirk in Leipzig when he heard one of Bach's motets and said "now there is someone we can learn from!" And so we do. There is a little book containing some 371 chorales of Bach that was assembled a bit after his death and it has been in print ever since. Why? Because composers study it for lessons in harmony. I have a copy on my shelf.

Going back to university, I got a wonderful education. But it wasn't necessarily because of how well I was taught. A lot of the teaching was mediocre. But everything I needed and wanted to know was available--all I had to do was dig it out and figure out what to do with it. I had the right attitude: "you people know all this stuff and I want to learn it." If someone goes to university expecting to be cajoled, massaged into learning, then I think they will get a poor education. You have to be an active, not a passive student.

When I read some of the critiques of the current university system, how they have rafts of 'diversity' administrators, sky high tuition and compete to offer the most luxurious student housing I think, well, yes, this does seem pretty silly. Especially the increases in tuition. I think in Canada, tuition rates are still quite low, as they should be. Students in Quebec have been marching in the streets for the last month, protesting a modest increase in the tuition.

I wonder if some of the problems with universities comes from their having lost their sense of humility. I get the idea that administration has grown and grown along with class sizes. I know the sort of people who go into administration and it is probably best that they not be allowed to make the important decisions! Universities are probably better run if they put the idea aside that they alone are really responsible for the intellectual and professional life of their students. The truth is, they merely provide the site and occasion for people largely teaching themselves.

This is the bottom line: if you want an education in music (or anything else, probably) you will have to provide it yourself. Lots of others can help, but it is really all on your shoulders. You are the one who will have to sit down and work through that book of Bach chorales, practice scales, work on interval recognition, do harmonic analysis, listen to a wide variety of music and on and on. Teachers and professors can make suggestions and supervise a bit, but you will have to do all the work. And that's how you get an education in music. I'm still giving myself one!