Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Joy and Mystery of the Subdominant!

This is a follow-up to the last post. The tonic and dominant have clear and obvious functions: the tonic is the point of rest and resolution; the dominant is the point of tension. A lot of music just goes back and forth between the tonic and dominant. But just what is it that the subdominant does? It takes us from the tonic to the dominant; it prepares the dominant; it is the transition from tonic to dominant. Well, that doesn't sound too exciting, does it? But as a matter of fact, the subdominant area is where most of the really interesting stuff happens and where the most exotic harmonies are found.

The subdominant area actually has two functions. Apart from preparing the dominant it is typically found in the coda of a sonata or other piece. After a great deal of fuss and energy spent going from the tonic to the dominant, a lot of pieces have a section near the end where the tension is relaxed by having a passage in the subdominant.

But the main subdominant function is to get us to the dominant in interesting ways. The tonic is a fixed, known quantity and so is the dominant. But the subdominant has proven to be a wonderfully flexible area that has attracted much of the harmonic ingenuity composers have come up with. The subdominant function or area can be the subdominant chord or the supertonic chord as they share two notes. But it can also be something more exotic, something that goes to the dominant in a more intense way. Two of the most interesting harmonies that serve this function are the Neapolitan sixth and the augmented sixth chords.

The Neapolitan sixth chord is a major chord built on the flattened supertonic. In harmonic analysis it is written as either bII6 or N6. In C major it would be a D flat chord. It is usually found in first inversion, which is why it is called a sixth chord. In C it would be spelled F A flat D flat. How is this a subdominant function? For one thing, the bass note is F, which is the subdominant. Also, it has the subdominant function as it characteristically moves to the dominant: it is a "pre-dominant" harmony. The Neapolitan sixth is most often found in the minor mode and it gives a momentary "Phrygian" feel to the harmony because of the flat second degree. What makes it different is that the flat second degree, rather than resolving down to the tonic, as it would if it were truly Phrygian, it goes instead to the leading tone (part of the dominant chord) and then to the tonic. Here is how it looks in D minor, first how it moves to the dominant and then in a full cadence.

The effect of the Neapolitan is to greatly intensify a cadence. Here is how it sounds in an example from Mendelssohn. This is from the Songs Without Words, op 102, no 4. The key is G minor, so the Neapolitan Sixth is spelled C E flat A flat. It occurs in the second half of the fifth measure, at the 17 second mark in this clip:

Here is the score:

The progression is quite typical of the Neapolitan: it goes to the dominant which cadences to the tonic. Bach, of course, created a much more complex and interesting context for the Neapolitan, using it in a passage that first suggests a deceptive cadence, then moves to the Neapolitan and finally a V to I, but not a perfect authentic cadence as both chords are in inversion. Pretty fancy!

I quoted this in a whole post about the deceptive cadence.

There is a lot more interesting stuff that can go on in the subdominant area, but I will save it for another post. What I am calling the "subdominant area" is that whole group of chords, including the subdominant, the supertonic and the Neapolitan, that all serve a subdominant function and lead to the dominant.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Harmonic Analysis

When people talk about analyzing music, what they are usually referring to is harmonic analysis. In music written between, roughly, 1600 and 1900, the so-called "common practice" period when most music was written using functional tonal harmony, you start with a harmonic analysis.

What this is, is a close examination of the music to see what chords are being used and where the cadences are. It is a way of looking behind the surface activity of the music, all those melodies and figurations, to the harmonic background that also provides the underlying structure.

Before we can do a harmonic analysis, we have to know a bit about chords. The basic chord in music is a triad, three notes consisting of a root, third and fifth. This is constructed by simply choosing a note and adding two notes above it from the scale, skipping in between notes. Here is the C major scale:

Then, starting with C, we take every other note:

Which gives us a C major triad (because we started on C):

You can build a triad on every note of the scale:

But some are more important than others:

These three are important because the C major triad is the tonic, the "home base" that the music will end on (and usually begin on). The triad built on G is the dominant, a fifth above the tonic, and every piece (and most phrases) will end with a cadence from the dominant to the tonic. The other triad, the one built on F, is called the subdominant because it is a fifth below the tonic (UPDATED). The other triads have names as well, but we can skip them for now. These three chords are important because they serve three different functions.

Musical structure, at least in tonal music, is based on a couple of basic ideas. One is that of time regularity: most music has a steady pulse or beat (that can be distorted for expressive purposes) and these beats are grouped in regular patterns and all this falls into equal-sized larger groups called phrases. The other basic idea is that of harmonic function. Harmonies create and resolve tension. This tension is normally resolved at the end of the phrase with a cadence: a perfect authentic cadence to be precise.

The three functions served by the three chords above are of resolution, tension and the building of tension. How a piece normally goes is by starting with the tonic chord, the C major in the above examples. Then the music moves through the subdominant or some version thereof, to the dominant, the area of maximum tension. Finally this tension is resolved by moving from the dominant back to the tonic. End of the journey! Sounds simple and indeed, on the most basic level, it is. A great deal of the organized power of music consists in following this simple journey in an interesting way. The vast, vast majority of pieces written between 1600 and 1900 follow this simple structure both on the small scale of the phrase and the large scale of the whole piece.

One reason that we can focus on just these three chords is that the other triads share a lot of notes with these and along with the notes, some of the function. For example, the triad on A shares two notes with the C triad. This is used in what is known as a deceptive cadence. You prepare for a standard cadence, but at the last moment you go to A minor instead of C major. Another example is the triad on B. This shares two notes with the dominant so it can function as a dominant. Added to this is that the third note of the B triad is an F, which is the seventh of a dominant seventh on G. The triad on D shares two notes with the F triad, so it can function as a subdominant.

Add it all together and there are only three basic harmonic functions: the tonic, or point of arrival, the dominant or point of maximum tension and the preparation for the dominant, everything that leads up to the dominant.

OK, now let's look at a piece. This little minuet in G major from the Anna Magdalena Notebook was for a long time thought to be written by her husband, J. S. Bach. Recent scholarship reveals it to be by the rather obscure composer Christian Pezold.

Since this is in G major, we should adjust our scale and triads to G:

Let's listen to the piece first. It takes up the first 1:30 of this clip:

Starting with the first line:

Click to enlarge

The first two measures are the tonic chord. As you can see, the G doesn't always have to be in the bass. In the second measure the B is the bass note, but the harmony is still G major. The third measure moves to the subdominant, a C triad. Then we move back to the tonic. The last measure in this line is a triad on A, which is the supertonic. As this triad shares two notes with the subdominant, it functions the same way. Here is the second line of the minuet:

Click to enlarge

The first measure of this line returns again to the tonic. The first beat of the next measure briefly touches the dominant, but the rest of the measure is tonic G major. Then the third measure of this line moves solidly to the dominant. The fourth and fifth measures return to the tonic G major. This is not a perfect authentic cadence, notice, because neither the dominant nor the tonic is in root position. Here is the third and last line of this first half of the menuet:

Click to enlarge

The first measure of this line returns once more to the subdominant, C major. The second measure is the tonic again. The third measure of this line outlines the dominant (with a seventh), but it is not in root position. Then we have the tonic yet again. The final two measures finally give us our necessary perfect authentic cadence with the dominant in root position followed by the tonic in root position. And that's the first half.  I won't do the second half because it adds some other elements and because just the first half illustrates the basic principle. This is a complete sixteen measure period in G major.

There are thousands of pieces that follow this same kind of structure. The miracle is that, because of the way the chords are articulated, the rhythms and most of all the melody, they all sound different!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Public Service Announcement

One of the most interesting and satisfying classes I took as an undergraduate was Philosophy 100. The conditions were ideal: I was an intellectually hungry young mind, the professor was a recent PhD in his first job and the class had only twenty or so students. Every day he would challenge us with readings in philosophy that we would debate for an hour. We would read the dialogues between Hylas and Philonious about the existence of the material world written by Bishop Berkeley and come to class morally outraged that anyone could claim that the physical world simply doesn't exist. Our professor would pace back and forth at the head of the classroom and, when we had run down and started repeating ourselves, he would glance over and say, "may I rephrase that?" Of course, you knew immediately that you were lost! In his rephrasing he would summarize what little you had to say and often had to do no more. Occasionally, when someone actually made a point, he would have to make an argument. But he always won. What was so remarkable about the class was that we actually practiced the act of philosophizing exactly as it was done by Plato and Socrates over two thousand years before. We were learning how to think critically. I have never quite gotten over that class. Thank goodness.

I mention this because sometimes the professor, who had a particular interest in moral philosophy, would begin the class with something of a public service announcement. Not like the ones we hear today which are inevitably lawyer-driven attempts to propagandize us into doing whatever The State thinks we should be doing; no, au contraire, these announcements were actually by way of being a public service. I remember one occasion on which he said watch out for hard contact lenses, they can have side effects. I suppose this is no longer the case, but at the time I'm sure it was useful knowledge.

In the spirit of my long-ago philosophy professor, I would like to make three short public service announcements that may be worth taking into account.

  1. Fifty percent of the people you meet every day have--by definition--below average intelligence.
  2. According to some psychologists, one in every twenty-seven people you meet is a sociopath.
  3. Every institution, whether it be a school, university, corporation or, yes, government, acts so as to benefit itself--and not you.
Now let me see, what would be an appropriate piece of music...

Ok, two pieces of music. First, what we seem to amuse ourselves with:

And now what our hidebound, unenlightened, barbaric ancestors amused themselves with:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Recitative is an interesting musical genre that was developed specifically to handle the need to set a lot of words, often in ordinary prose rather than verse. Its origins were in the research that members of the Florentine Camerata did into Greek drama. Based on the idea that the ancient Greeks actually sung, not just the choruses, but all of the texts of their dramas, the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Italians tried to re-invent the music. In the process they came up with a lot of new forms and genres including the very idea of opera. Let it not be said that musical experimentation is sterile!

Here is an early example of the kind of thing they came up with. This is not pure recitative, but the words and vocal line certainly dominate:

Here is a more typical kind of early recitative by Monteverdi:

The most important thing is the words, so the melody just serves to heighten the normal rise and fall of expressive speech. The accompaniment is bare bones chords and there is no audible pulse as the chords are pitch and place-holders inserted between vocal phrases.

Bach, as you might expect, gives us a much more elaborate example. Here is the Evangelist describing the rending of the veil of the temple from the St. Matthew Passion. The recitative is the first minute and a half of the clip and it is followed by a chorus.

Here is the beginning of the score:

Click to enlarge

Sorry for the blurry bits; couldn't get the book to lie flat on the scanner. As you can see, there is a very active bass line, put there to depict the rending. You will notice little numbers above the longer bass notes. These indicate what notes the player should use to fill out the harmony. The first 6 indicates a first inversion chord. Since it is over an E note, that means a C major chord.

Since there always seems to be some prosy text to get through, at least if the whole musical work is to be sung, the recitative had quite a long history, persisting right into the operas of Rossini. There are analogous passages even in Wagner and more ironic usages in Kurt Weil. Beethoven was a particular master of using the style of recitative, which has the feeling of speaking to us directly, in purely instrumental music. The third movement of his Piano Sonata in A major, op 110 begins with a very expressive instrumental recitative:

The use of the voice in a less melodic, more speech-like manner also returned in the 20th century in numerous contexts. I'll pick out two utterly different examples. The first is a kind of speech-song style that has a similar effect to recitative. Schoenberg called it "sprechstimme" and used it in Pierrot Lunaire:

And for my final example, the inimitable Tom Waits with a song that would be recitative if jazz had such a thing. Here it is, the only product you will ever need, "Step Right Up":

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Problem in Music Economics

I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about very expensive hotel rooms. I mean, ones that cost $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 or even $40,000 a night! There are lot of hotels in places like London, Paris and Dubai that are competing for the ultra-rich's travel dollar. This is a kind of economic context in which the visual arts can also flourish. Damian Hirst's jewel-encrusted skull titled For the Love of God would seem to appeal to the same sort of clientele:

There are reported to be £15,000,000 worth of diamonds used in the piece. The problem for musicians is that we don't seem to be able to do anything similar to appeal to the fraction of a percent that are so wealthy that they can afford to stay in $40,000 a night hotel rooms and buy jewel-encrusted skulls. Even the car industry has been able to respond by building tiny numbers of million-dollar sports cars like the Aston Martin One-77 which goes for $1,400,000:

What can musicians do? There was some real money when you could restrict performances to just those people who could buy tickets. And you could sell them expensive and exclusive box seats. In the 19th century the opera-composer Rossini was able to retire, a wealthy man, at thirty-seven years of age based on this sort of model and being the most famous opera composer in Europe. But in the digital age, when it costs nothing to reproduce virtually any performance, few musicians are able to earn large amounts of money and those few are all pop musicians who leverage their earning power by selling headphones, perfumes, t-shirts and other products.

What can a musician create to sell to the fabulously wealthy? We just can't seem to think of anything! While certain music in the past was often the preserve of the wealthy, now that doesn't seem possible. Joseph Haydn was employed for most of his career by the Esterházy family who had a country estate modeled after Versailles that included concert halls and their own private opera house. Haydn wrote symphonies, chamber music and operas just for performance at their residence! I suppose someone like Bill Gates could do the same today, but there seems to be no interest in doing so. The closest equivalent would be the museum in Seattle built by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft in 2000. The disconcerting thing is that it was originally devoted to the music of Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native.

The problem with music is that all its virtues are non-material. The idea of having an orchestra playing all Stradivarius instruments, in a concert hall designed to the height of luxury, with, I don't know, champagne and caviar in every box, the musician's music stands being of solid gold or something and everyone, conductor included, wearing the height of fashion designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier is, what, ridiculous? Absurd?

The fact that music is so non-material in an age that is so deeply material is its strongest virtue...

Life at One Remove

Courtesy of Norman Lebrecht, I just watched a video that is getting a lot of playWritten by/Starring Charlene deGuzman and Directed by Miles Crawford:

If you spend all your time recording, photographing and videoing life, then when will you have time to look at all these archives? Even more important, you will have missed actually living!

A few days ago I saw a YouTube video of a popular music performance in which nearly everyone in the audience was holding up their smartphone.

Here is the link to an essay about smartphone recordings by James Ehnes, violin soloist.

As I have mentioned before, recording technology is very much a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you can easily have access to all the great music in good performances. On the other hand, your life is cursed because every time you go out in public you are harassed by horrible, tinny recordings of bad music blasted at you from every corner.

Recording tends to result in a certain amount of alienation. From the point of view of the musician, recording objectifies his performance. Rather than it being a simple matter of playing the music in an expressive way, it is complicated by the fact that after playing you listen to the performance and are separated from it. You are "on the other side" or hearing from the outside what you just played from the inside. I think that since minor errors seem to be amplified by the recording process, the tendency is to make the playing more mechanically perfect and certainly less spontaneous. You can learn to work within these constraints, of course, but the tendency is there.

Similarly, the listener is alienated from the musical performance by the fact that it is intermediated by technology. It will always sound different from the original performance. A musical performance always has a context: it is in a particular location, in a particular hall or room at a particular hour and date and with just these musicians dressed in just that way and feeling just as they felt. All this is enervated by the recording process whereby the exact sound and feel of the location of the performance is washed away. Even with video, the feel of being in the place is gone.

As we can see in that YouTube video about the smartphone, it alienates people from one another. Would young people watch this video and not see the tragedy of it? Just see it as normal life?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Discovering Musicians, Part 5: Kevin Puts

I think I have mentioned the American composer Kevin Puts a couple of times. He is one of a new generation of composers that manages, successfully I think, to meld the role of being a new music composer with an awareness and respect for the past traditions of classical music.

In response to a comment about how composers are either recognized or neglected I wrote:
I think that one of the interesting historical phenomena of music since 1900 is the deployment of modernist (and then post-modernist) ideology in shaping the public reception of music. Books like René Leibowitz' "Schoenberg and His School" were designed to influence and shape public opinion. That they were not entirely successful was due to two things: competing narratives such as the one put forth by Igor Stravinsky in his (probably ghost-written) book "Poetics of Music" and the series of books written in collaboration with Robert Craft, and by public resistance to atonal music generally. Since 1900 it has been almost de rigeur for composers to further their careers with some kind of written manifesto. John Cage is an outstanding example of this.

But at this stage in music history, where I think a more conservative stage is beginning, the radical manifesto is really not the right strategy. What does a composer who writes music that acknowledges a relationship with the past that involves the use of elements like harmony and melody do? Well, this one started a blog that is attempting to subvert the modernist and post-modernist narrative in music!
 Since the 1960s there has been a backlash against the fiercely dissonant, rhythmically jagged music of modernism. The first figures in this trend were Steve Reich and Philip Glass with their early 'minimalist' work that featured harmonic stasis and a strong beat. But this soon developed, both in their music and that of others like John Adams, into more complex structures that still featured consonance and rhythmic coherence. A still newer generation with composers like Osvaldo Golijov and Kevin Puts are using textures and gestures taken from or reminiscent of older music in compositions that are still new. It is hard to generalize, but one way in which what they are doing is different from post-modernism is that they are using these elements in a non-ironic way.

Let's listen to some music by Kevin Puts. Here is a string quartet, Credo, dating from 2007. YouTube refuses to embed, so here is the link:

This is certainly a piece of new music, but at the same time, it is not afraid of using consonance and melody. Golijov has gone even further in transforming music by Couperin into a piece for string quartet:

But back to Kevin Puts. He has been successful in writing larger works for orchestra including symphonies and concertos. The very fact that he uses these terms instead of more modernist ones like "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" or "Momente" or "Gruppen" indicates a different attitude towards the past than that of a modernist composer. Alas, none of Kevin Puts' four symphonies seem to be available on YouTube, so let me put up instead the first movement of his Piano Concerto entitled "Night". This is Bernadette Harvey with the Canberra Youth Orchestra conducted by Rowan Harvey-Martin giving the Australian premiere:

There is no mistaking that for Beethoven, certainly. Nor for Stockhausen! Occasional bits of it might have been composed by Prokofiev or Bartók. But the unabashed ending with tonal harmony and the consistent rhythmic texture would have been avoided by most 20th century composers.

How can you write music like this, frankly tonal, and not be accused of pandering or of sounding like "movie" music? I think that the answer is that this is a genuine musical expression that comes from both real compositional expertise and from aesthetic sincerity. I'm trying to avoid the word "authentic" as it is often abused, but there is something that sets apart music like this from mere melodrama and I'm at a loss for another way to describe it. I think that the many manifestations of musical post-modernism all share the common feature of being like costumes the composer puts on. "Let's have some African music here, then some Dixieland, maybe a little atonal wash for contrast." None of this flows from any genuine artistic conviction, it is just window-dressing. Post-modernism is all window-dressing which is why it is so unsatisfying, aesthetically. But I think that the music of Kevin Puts is well composed. It manages to be satisfying to audiences and to players and it seems to be a genuine expression of the composer.

Here is an interview with Kevin Puts that is somewhat interesting:

And here is the piece they were talking about, And Legions Will Rise for violin, clarinet and marimba. This is the first part, performed bMatt Slack, Kerstin Tenney, and Justin Laukat:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Jazz Version

I used to know a pianist who was a hit at parties. He could do variations on a well-known tune like "Happy Birthday" in the style of different composers: Handel, Brahms, Debussy, etc. A somewhat different phenomenon is jazz arrangement of other music. Of course, a lot of jazz is based on arrangements of "standards" in jazz style. But sometimes it goes beyond that. One famous example is Miles Davis' recording of an arrangement by Gil Evans of the middle movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Here it is:

That is pretty interesting, but I think more limited musically than the original, which gets many, many performances every year.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there is an aesthetic principle involved here: as a general rule, arrangements are less substantial, aesthetically, than original versions. I have to be careful, because it is easy to overstate this. What I mean is that at the top of the aesthetic ladder, musically speaking, are certain works written for a specific instrument or instruments. The unitary aesthetic vision, in other words, includes abstract structural features but, since music is a concrete art form, also includes exact realizations in sound. Bach's music for solo violin or cello can be played on other instruments such as mandolin or guitar, but the original version takes precedence because it is the ideal realization of the idea. How do we know this? Because Bach made the choice. Even more pointedly, the piano sonatas of Beethoven are virtually never heard in any other medium because they are so perfectly written for the piano. He made one transcription of one sonata for string quartet, but the experiment was not repeated.

I said "at the top of the aesthetic ladder" and what I meant by that was that there are lots of pieces of music that are less specific. There are hoards of Renaissance pieces for any two melodic instruments that are quite nice pieces. In general, as you go back in music history, the specificity of instruments is less. A lot of Medieval music can be played by a wide variety of instruments. But more and more, from the Baroque on, instruments (and voices) are written for with great precision.

Alongside this there are always arrangements, of course, to fit the needs of special occasions. The harp player at the wedding plays the famous march by Mendelssohn even though it was written for orchestra. But as I said, at the top of the musical ladder, originals are preferred over arrangements. It is not just symbolic bowing to the composer's intentions--it is recognition that the composer's choice of instruments is very often a crucial part of the unitary aesthetic vision.

All this is prompted by the news that there is a new version of Lulu, the unfinished opera by Alban Berg, in which Lulu is a "black American freedom-fighter singing to a jazz score". Here is the link to the article in the Guardian. Responsible for this project is composer Olga Neuwirth. Here is a brief excerpt from one of her pieces, Hommage à Klaus Nomi. YouTube refused to embed for some reason, but here is the link:

Forgive me, but that sounds like Couperin being mugged, first by Pierrot Lunaire and then Miles Davis...

The Guardian has a paragraph that summarizes what is going on with this new version (arrangement?) of Lulu:
What's radical about Neuwirth's American Lulu isn't just that she has dared to finish what her countryman couldn't ('much of the orchestration and some of the composition of the third act of this luridly sensual and musically complex opera was incomplete by the time of Berg's death in 1935). It's the fact that Neuwirth sets the story of Lulu's manipulative rise and desperate fall not in the fetid European cities of Berg's original, but turns her into a freedom-fighting black woman amid the civil-rights struggle in 1950s New Orleans and 1970s Manhattan – and comes up with a new text in English to boot. She also arranges Berg's music for a glorified jazz band while compressing the opera's structure, throwing out much of Berg's score, and inserting an ending very different to what was originally envisaged.
"Throwing out much of Berg's score"? In that case, shouldn't Berg's estate or publisher be suing someone? Or at least demanding that Berg's name be taken off the publicity? After all, aren't we reading this article and aren't people attending these performances because Berg's name is up there? Please, Lulu is not a "sacred cow" as the article says, it is a justly famous 20th century opera. Famous because of the music written very specifically in a certain way for specific instruments, not for a "glorified jazz band". Therefore, we are, are we not, being sold a bill of goods here? Isn't this a kind of aesthetic fraud? Don't we need a forensic musicologist, stat?!?

Let's have a look at what is available online. Here is a French news item about the Berlin première of the "American Lulu":

Oh no, nothing exploitative there! Much more revealing is an advertisement for the production that, again, oddly, YouTube refuses to embed. Here it is:

Are we really that desperate to sell tickets to an opera? Or is it just that nothing matters except the vision of the arranger? My opinion is, if you want to do this, more power to you, just don't implicate Alban Berg.

It is a little disconcerting that the very people who should be promoting culture seem instead like barbarians, intent on stomping it into the ground.

UPDATE: It's nice to hear that my doubts about this production seem to have been quite justified. The Guardian just put up a review. This is a key sentence:
Of the sounds that linger in the memory from the Edinburgh performance, the most dominant is that of seats being upturned as members of the audience crept out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Looking at Music

Something I pointed out a while back is now supported by science: musicians win competitions and build careers with their looks. Here is the study reported in the Harvard Gazette.
“What I found was that people had a lower chance of identifying the eventual winner if they only listened to the sound,” Tsay said. “People who just had the video — even without the sound — had surprisingly high rates of selecting the actual winner. Even with professional musicians, who are trained to use sound, and who have both expertise and experience, it appeared that the visual information was overriding the sound.”
Because musical differences between two top performers are often slight, viewers can more easily pick up on visual cues they associate with high-quality performance, Tsay believes. Factors such as a performer’s engagement, passion, and energy resonate.
Chia-Jung Tsay is a pianist herself with significant performing experience so it is surprising that she, in my view, misinterprets the evidence. Yes, sure, of course appearance is a big factor: that is precisely why young performers building careers put so much emphasis on it. I have talked about that here and here. But, "musical differences between two top performers are often slight"? Where did this astonishing misapprehension come from? I can understand that an average concert-goer certainly being more swayed by the artist's garb or demeanor than by the strength of his or her interpretation: that is, after all, exactly why agents, managers and marketing advisors recommend what they recommend. But musicians? Chia-Jung Tsay seems to be saying that even musicians are oblivious to the actual musical content of the performance. But what is probably actually happening is that even in competitions judged by musicians, the visual aspect is given a lot of weight. I think this is simply because of the corruption of musical quality that has invaded even the classical musical world. Judges, perhaps even against their better judgment are saying to themselves, "oh yes, she has an excellent chance of a career because she plays pretty well and looks really great--audiences like that."

Want to know the truth? Despite the supposed "findings" of studies like these, musical differences between "top" performers are not "slight", but often enormous. There are gorgeous looking pianists that have wooden phrasing, and empty interpretations. There are very ordinary, or even off-putting in appearance, pianists that are as profound as anyone could wish for. A significant number of the posts on this blog are about distinguishing things like this, so just have a look around. There are so-called Bach specialists that play Bach really badly. There are string quartets with no feeling for Beethoven. And these are famous artists with big careers.

I think the real implication of the study I linked to at the top is that after decades of the unrelenting denial of aesthetic quality and difference, even people who should know better are giving in.

But vive la différence!

Now I'm going to put up two performances of a Chopin ballade. For the first artist there are NO clips on YouTube that do not feature a video of her playing, so to perform the experiment you will have to start the clip playing and NOT watch it.

Here is another clip of the same piece played by a different artist:

So, what do you hear? Any major differences between these "top performers"? Or are they "slight"?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Brief Hiatus

Tomorrow I will be going out of town for a few days and may not have the opportunity to post much to the blog. So in the meantime, there are lots of older posts that you might find interesting. Here are a few from the early days of the Music Salon, way back in June, 2011:

Here is one of my more outrageous posts from back then:

A little discussion of a song by Bob Dylan:

On the transcendental in music:

And a follow-up, on composition:

That should keep you occupied for a bit. Now let's end with a great piece of music by Beethoven: the Archduke Trio. The artists are a rather remarkable trio oEmil Gilels, piano, Leonid Kogan, violin and Mstislav Rostropovich, cello.

The Loneliness of the Composer

I was reading a post over at NewMusicBox where Rob Deemer notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US does not have a separate category for composers, lumping them in with music directors and with "jingle writers", arrangers and songwriters. There is even a rather depressing map included that purports to show "Employment of music directors and composers, by area, May 2012":

See all those white spaces? Utah, North and South Dakota, Nevada, Alaska--apparently these places simply have no composers. As for Canada, I can't even find similar data. There is a long list of Canadian composers (that seems to be missing a lot of names), on Wikipedia. But, as in the US, if we were to see the concentration by area, it would be heavily focused on Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver with little patches in places like Halifax, Winnipeg and Victoria. In the US, outside of New York and adjacent areas, and Los Angeles, composers would be thin on the ground--again, with patches in Boston, Chicago and a few other places.

Being a composer is not easy. The Guardian recently put up an interview with a very successful composer, Philip Glass, where he mentions that he wasn't able to make a living as a composer until he was into his forties! He says,
I didn't make a living until I was in my 40s – I did construction work, moved furniture, anything. Nobody makes you choose the life of an artist. We do it on our own, and we take our chances.
In some ways music chooses you, though for most people it is not quite as open-and-shut as it seems it was for Philip Glass. I'm sure all composers have doubts, but they likely rarely share them with others. Our image of people like Beethoven is that of an indomitable will that was unstoppable. We don't think of Beethoven, on the verge of, say, the Fifth Symphony, thinking to himself, "I just don't know if I can write another symphony... do I even have any more ideas..."

I'm afraid that the vast majority of composers in both the US and Canada are quietly employed in universities teaching composition and perhaps theory to generations of undergraduates. Occasionally they may actually get a local performance: perhaps a string quartet or trio plays a piece of chamber music. On a rare occasion, the orchestra may play a short piece by the local composer, likely never to be repeated. There is little public profile and no glory for the average composer.

By "average composer" I don't mean some know-nothing schlemiel who can't write decent music to save his life. No, I mean an actual, sincere composer, who recognizes the nature and challenge of music composition, who sees him or herself as part of that great tradition of composition in the West that goes back to those shadowy figures Leonin and Perotin, working at Notre Dame in Paris in the 12th century.

Composers like Philip Glass that have actually achieved an international reputation and are showered with commissions are rare as hen's teeth. We could probably count them on the fingers of our two hands. And compared to pop stars, even Philip Glass is a near-nonentity.

It's a lonely vocation, being a composer. In terms of your daily existence, probably not that different from a Trappist monk. You sit alone with your working materials day after day, seeking to discover and create something that will be worth hearing for listeners, something that, if not entirely new and original, will at least be a real expression of a human being with perhaps some new perspectives on the materials of music.

We don't reward these people with very much and some receive no reward at all, but without getting too melodramatic, theirs seems to me to be a fairly important slice of our culture.

Let's listen to some Philip Glass to close. This is the third movement of his Symphony No. 8:

Monday, August 19, 2013

Schoenberg and the Paradox of Modernism

Suppose I told you that there was a good book on music composition that was thorough, intelligent and conservative? That the foundation of the method was the mastery of all the traditional elements: the musical phrase and cadence, the motif, the theme, the traditional forms such as the small ternary, the minuet, the scherzo, the rondo and the sonata-allegro. That the composer used as a model for all these was Beethoven and that the basic assumption was that the music to be written was tonal and that every theme implied a harmony, i.e. a tonal harmony. Who would you guess the author to be?

Hindemith? Well, possibly. Stravinsky? Certainly not! Brahms? No, this was written over quite a number of years up to 1948 and not published until 1967. Here is the cover of the current edition:

Yes, that's correct, the author of this very conservative guide to musical composition is Arnold Schoenberg, one of the main proponents of modernism in music. The one who invented 12-tone music; the one who destroyed, apparently for all time, tonality; the one whose music, it is claimed, can empty any concert hall, the teacher of those icons of modernism Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Yet decades after he developed 12-tone technique in the 1920s, he was teaching at UCLA where he wrote this textbook for young students of composition. He taught there through part of the 1930s and the 1940s. Among his students were both John Cage and Lou Harrison. (He used to play tennis with George Gershwin!) On one occasion Schoenberg said, "My music is not modern, it is merely badly played."

Does no-one see the astonishing contradiction here? This is like the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko insisting that his students study traditional drawing working with still lifes and human models. Instead, according to Wikipedia:
In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters.[25] According to Rothko, the work of modernists, influenced by primitive art, could be compared to that of children in that "child art transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of himself." In this manuscript, he observed that "the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color." Rothko was using fields of color in his aquarelles and city scenes.
"The fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic." But Schoenberg, rather than regarding the study of tonal music as "academic", i.e. of interest only to historians, made it not only the foundation of his teaching of composition, but the only approach, based on his published texts at least. Atonal music is not even mentioned in this book, nor in Structural Functions of Harmony.

Why is it that the only one of the major figures in musical modernism to spend a significant amount of time teaching composition, taught according to the principles of tonal harmony? I don't want to make too much of this because obviously, as he taught the methods of 12-tone composition privately to Berg, Webern and others, he did not ignore his own method in his teaching. But none of his published works on theory deal with 12-tone composition.

I doubt I can resolve this contradiction; certainly not in a blog post. But I think there is a paradox here and I think the reason for it might be quite interesting. Let's listen to a little Schoenberg to end. This is the Violin Concerto, op. 36, written in 1936, soon after he began teaching at UCLA:

Perhaps in Schoenberg's music we can hear the tension between traditional musical structures and, as he saw it, the historical demands of modernism. And perhaps we could go even further and see these tensions as reflecting the tensions between the "progressivism" of certain 20th century political movements and the terrible struggle between them and the more traditional societies that resisted them. There is a kind of eerie authenticity in Schoenberg's music that is worth pondering...

UPDATE: Replaced the original clip with one of the complete concerto played by Louis Krasner who did the premiere in 1939.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is This Pseudoscience?

I think I can slip this into the Music Salon because it does mention Mozart. Here is a article I just ran across:

Gym workouts and sunbathing do more for your brain than crosswords and Mozart

Here is the key paragraph:
“Let me dispel a brain development myth,” Spitzer told The Economist. “Many people think classical music is going to enhance brain function (the Mozart effect) or playing particular games sharpens one’s cognitive function. These theories have been looked at in detail and they don’t stand up. It is disappointing in a way, but what we have learned is that exercise is the key thing for brain function.”
Brain development, brain function: are these code words? OK, sure this makes a kind of sense, but it seems woefully inadequate. In French they have a phrase that translates to "intellectual formation" and it means the training that you need to undergo in order to develop your thinking capacity. This training, oddly enough, does not consist of physical exercise and sunlight. It varies according to discipline, of course. In philosophy it might consist in reading some standard texts such as Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God or Berkeley's dialogues between Hylas and Philonous about the existence of the material world or Kant's Prolegomena to any future metaphysics. Then you need to discuss these texts with a philosopher. This kind of training goes back to Socrates.

In music, there is a fairly standard kind of training that is partly intellectual and partly aural. You learn how to read music notation, study counterpoint and harmony and learn to write music down when you hear it and sing melodies at sight. This is also usually accompanied by a review of music history. There is no way to have a deep understanding of music without going through this sort of training. Exception: in pop music they take a different approach that is largely aural.

So when they talk about "brain development" and "brain function" they must mean just the physical activity of the brain. Because if all you do is exercise and get plenty of sun, you will be perfectly ignorant and incapable of actually doing anything with your brain! I think this is yet another example of scientists talking about the brain as a mere physical organ that they have only the slightest actual understanding of. What we use every day to perform every kind of mental activity, such as thinking (cognitive function in their nomenclature), is the mind, not the brain. Perhaps in a hundred years or more we might understand the relationship between them. But articles like the one I linked to do little more than demonstrate that the mind and the brain are two different things.

But of course, just listening to Mozart or Bach or anyone else is not equivalent to training your mind.

Now let's listen to some Mozart. Here are the Beaux Arts Trio with the first movement of the first Piano Trio in B flat:


I've mentioned modulation quite a few times on this blog, but I haven't talked much about it. In music the term refers to the process of changing one key center for another. Here is the Wikipedia article. This Wikipedia article is not a particularly good introduction as it immediately proceeds into the technical details without giving much context.

You first have to have some idea of the notion of a "key". In music a key is a kind of basic structure that you could envision laid out like a baseball diamond:

You start at home plate, the top corner, and then proceed anti-clockwise to first base, second base and third base before returning home. Similarly, in music, the basic structure is that you start with the tonic, which is often expanded, then you go to the subdominant or related chord, then the dominant and finally return to the tonic. Here is how this looks in notation:

Of course, in actual pieces, composers depart from and vary this basic structure in many ways. But you would be surprised at how much music is written according to this structure. The movement from dominant to tonic normally creates a cadence and it is used to end most phrases and all major sections and the end of every piece. I need to qualify that by saying "a cadence ends every piece in common practice style". That is, nearly everything in the 17th and early 18th centuries (the exception being some holdovers from modal harmony) and everything in the late 18th and through most of the 19th century. I challenged a commentor to send me one example of a piece by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven that did NOT end with an authentic cadence. I don't expect to receive any examples. This is more important than a "rule": it is a basic principle of tonal music. The key is defined by the cadence and without this, the music really isn't tonal. You define a key by running around the bases as I have illustrated above.

So, you have run around the bases a few times and start to worry that you need more variety. The solution is often to modulate, or change gears into a new key. After a section or more in the new key (or possibly more than one new key) you move back to the original key. This is called modulation. How do you do it? There are a number of ways. One of the most common is to use a chord or even just a note that is common to both keys. This is called a pivot chord or note and I suppose you could metaphorically call it a kind of "clutch" that enables you to change gears.

The most typical kind of modulation, at least in major keys, is to the key of the dominant. In C major, this would be a modulation to G major. A signal of this change would be the appearance of sharps on the Fs as G major has a key signature of one sharp, F. If you were in the key of G and modulated to the dominant, which is D, you would suddenly see C#s appearing as D has two sharps in the key signature: F and C. Let's use as an example a famous song by Franz Schubert, "Heidenröslein". Here is the composer's autograph of the song:

Click to enlarge

That's pretty easy to read, unlike Beethoven's autographs. But we can find a clearer one:

Click to enlarge

What you see here are two phrases. The first is in the tonic key, G major, indicated by the key signature of one sharp (F). This phrase extends for four measures and the harmonies are tonic, supertonic (with tonic pedal), dominant, tonic. The supertonic serves the same function as the subdominant. In symbols it would be I, ii 4/2, V6/5, V4/2, I6, I. The next phrase, starting in measure 5, modulates to the dominant. It starts on what was the tonic, but this is going to be the pivot chord so we should now think of it as the subdominant. G is the subdominant of D major, the new key. So the harmonies in this second phrase, which is six measures going to the end of the second line, are subdominant, dominant, tonic, supertonic, dominant, submediant, tonic, supertonic, dominant, tonic. So in this phrase, instead of just running around the bases once, he does so three times. Every time we return to the tonic it is like returning to home plate. All Schubert has to do in the final phrase is return to G major, which he does. Simple! Let's have a listen to the song. This is Peter Schreier singing in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. The first verse, which encompasses the first phrase in G major, the second phrase modulating to D major and the third phrase which returns to G major, takes only 36 seconds!

So that is the basic idea of modulation. Composers have found hundreds of ways to make it more elaborate, but the basic principle is as I have explained. It is rare to find a piece of classical music that does not modulate.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pop Music Fights Totalitarianism?

I just read a very troubling article by someone that I quite admire: Glenn Harlan Reynolds of Instapundit fame. Glenn doesn't publish his statistics, but based on past information he probably gets several hundred thousand visitors every day. He is the blogging equivalent of a regional newspaper. He is a libertarian at heart, a law professor who is a specialist in 2nd amendment law. He is also pro-choice and supports gay civil rights. He likes to say that in his perfect society every gay married couple would have an assault rifle in the closet. So, he doesn't fit into the usual political categories. As a libertarian, he has quoted the saying a few times that libertarians want to take over the government so they can leave you alone!

He just put up a link to an essay he wrote eleven years ago. Oh, one thing I forgot to mention, he used to be into music of the electronic dance music variety and his brother plays guitar in a band. So he has more knowledge of and exposure to music than most people. Ok, here is the article: "The King of Anti-Fascism". Here is the central claim:
Music took over the airwaves, and today in most of the world a crazed orator would have a hard time getting enough listeners to take over a country no matter how persuasive his spiel. After Elvis, the commercial culture of rock and roll simply occupied the mindspace that totalitarians need, and it out-competed them.
You should read the whole thing. He sets this up by noting that Hitler was able to sway the people of Germany through an emotional appeal that was especially powerful because it was made through the medium of radio:
Hitler was aided by a new technological innovation: the radio. Nazism's totalitarian sibling, communism, spread largely by print and took decades to gain a foothold. But radio allowed Hitler to manipulate emotions wholesale, in a way that had never been possible before. And the masses - starved for entertainment and desperate for catharsis, and a sense of purpose - ate it up.
He contrasts this with the way that Elvis Presley took over all the new media:
Hitler used the tools provided by new technology. But Elvis owned them: radio, television, movies, it didn't matter: he conquered them all. And the changes that he brought about helped to topple totalitarian regimes, and make new ones less likely, for he left behind a changed culture that short-circuited the mechanisms that Hitler had used to secure power - and the mechanisms that other regimes used to maintain it.
Since Elvis, the bonding-and-catharsis element of mass media has expanded to outdo anything that any politician can deliver. We describe an especially popular politician today as looking "like a rock star," rather than the other way around, after all.
Let's look at that central claim again:
Music took over the airwaves, and today in most of the world a crazed orator would have a hard time getting enough listeners to take over a country no matter how persuasive his spiel. After Elvis, the commercial culture of rock and roll simply occupied the mindspace that totalitarians need, and it out-competed them.
What is it that troubles me about all this? Actually this is a fascinating essay because of the things it implies as much as what it states in so many words. For example, there is the widespread, vaguely 60s idea, that rock music is the great liberator. I have run across this in a lot of different places. Alas, the corollary to that is that classical music is the great oppressor! Alex Ross, even though he writes on classical music, seems to share that view in his book The Rest is Noise. I engaged with some of this in this post. I dealt with the problem more directly in this post.

The first problem that occurs to me with Glenn Reynold's theory is that we have a very powerful counter-example right before us today. All over the Middle East the religious leaders use radio and television and the internet to spread exactly the kind of totalitarian message that Glenn says was "short-circuited" by rock and roll. The problem is that "hot" media like radio and television can easily be controlled and put to use for any purpose good or bad. You can listen to Elvis singing "Don't Be Cruel" or some member of the Muslim Brotherhood inciting people to burn down Christian churches in Egypt.

Glenn ends with these paragraphs:
When the Berlin Wall fell, Elvis and the musicians who came afterward deserved as much credit as General Dynamics or the Strategic Air Command.

The same holds wherever people try to tyrannize the minds of men and women. It's no wonder that the Taliban opposed dancing and Western music, and no wonder that the increasingly desperate mullahs of Iran are flogging people for dancing at birthday parties. They can't compete with the King and his descendants. And they know it.
It would be nice if this were so, but it's not. Elvis and the Beatles, who were the other great masters of rock and roll and the new media, had a huge cultural influence on Western society, but only on Western society. The mullahs hate Western music of all kinds. They probably hate Mozart as much as they hate Elvis. And they can keep Elvis and Mozart out of their societies because they can use the radio to spread their message just as Elvis did. And they do it with more focus and clearer intention: they are not there to entertain, but to indoctrinate.

I remember a quote from Joseph Stalin who asked, when warned about the influence of the Pope, "yeah, how many divisions does he have?" In Egypt right now there are 8 million Christians being terrorized by the Muslim Brotherhood. No cultural force, not even Elvis, has the ability to lend them any help whatsoever. But if they had an assault rifle in every closet that might be a different story.

UPDATE: I think I have few rosy illusions about the power and influence of rock music because I am one of the few people who discusses this issue who actually played in a (not-very-good) rock band in the late 1960s. Believe me, our music didn't liberate anyone! But we did have a good time.