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:


Rickard said...

Lets see:
1. Yeah, it's true but I prefer not to think about it. We have to function as a society even if people have differing intelligences. I got curious about the nature vs nurture aspects and found this article:
2. That's a quite high number. Wikipedia article has a psychopathy checklist, quite interesting. Could be used if you suspect someone to be sociopath.
3. That's true to a certain extent. They act to benefit you so you can benefit them.

Now something unrelated. A while ago I think I read a post on this blog where you wrote you had an idea of composing a plucked string quartet (mandolin, guitar, banjo & double bass). To be honest I am fond of the idea of composing for instruments that at least previously haven't been used so often in classical music and a few months back I thought about composing a plucked string quartet (down the road). I tried to find a suiting combination of instruments and I thought mandolin, guitar, banjo & double bass would be a good combination. However I didn't really want to include a double bass since it's more of a "regular" string instrument but there is quite a lack of a common & good plucked string bass instrument so I thought maybe (amplified) acoustic bass would be good enough. Anyways, unrelated but just wanted to share.

Bryan Townsend said...

1. Yes, we don't normally think about it. But it sometimes explains things and sometimes should be a reason to give someone special consideration.
2. Seemed like a high number to me too, but then I starting thinking... A sociopath can be very functional, charming even. Just not possessing real empathy.
3. How true this is certainly varies from institution to institution and from country to country.

I did actually compose a piece for the combination of violin, harpsichord, harp and guitar, but the original idea was for mandolin, guitar, banjo and double bass. An amplified acoustic bass or maybe even an electric bass could work just fine. I tried adding a cello, but it just didn't work out. What I ended up doing was exploiting the long sustain of the violin and contrasting it with the short-lived plucked sounds.

Rickard said...

I see, you have a point about the short-lived plucked sounds. Since you have lots of experience with plucked instruments, how short is the sound typically? I know it's probably a hard question to answer but maybe you could give some kind of example?

Bryan Townsend said...

There is no simple answer. Different instruments have different kinds of sustain. A banjo or mandolin, for example, has pretty short sustain. But this is also true of very high notes on the guitar. Anything above the 12th fret will not sustain very long on a classical guitar. But mid-range and low notes can have quite a long sustain. If you are playing notes on the 4th and 5th strings, especially with vibrato, you can have a pretty long sustain. Electric instruments all have a very long sustain, of course. The harpsichord and the harp are a bit like the guitar in that high notes die fairly quickly, but middle and low notes ring for much longer.

As an example of how the guitar can be made to sound long-lasting notes, I refer you to a piece of mine. There are no special effects here, it was recorded on a completely acoustic classical guitar in a quite "live" space. I don't even think there were any edits...

Rickard said...

Quite an interesting piece but I have only heard a few chants and none on any instrument (well, the exception would be quotes of chants by non-medieval composers) so it sounded pretty unusual. Anyways, any idea about the sustain on acoustic bass? Another option I thought about as a plucked string bass instrument is the Mexican guitarrĂ³n. I suppose you have come across these considering you live in Mexico.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Rickard. I have always liked the simplicity of chant, so decided to do a guitar piece in that style.

What do you mean by "acoustic bass"? A string bass or double bass pizzicato? Like all bowed instrument pizzicato, the notes don't sustain very long, but certainly longer than violin. I have certainly heard lots of guitarrĂ³ns, but I have never actually played one myself. It is hard to tell because in the mariachi music where it is used, the norm is quite a lot of short notes, not long notes.

Rickard said...

I mean this:

Rickard said...

Anyways, so basically if I understood it right, when writing for any ensemble only with plucked string instruments one of the big issues is the inability for the instruments to maintain longer notes. Obviously there might not be a need to hold long notes. But either way there are solutions to the problem in form of certain guitar ranges and electric guitar or electric bass guitar.

Bryan Townsend said...

Composers choose particular instruments because they want the qualities those instruments possess. So this is really an aesthetic question. An ensemble of plucked instruments could be ideal for certain kinds of music. But bear in mind that the vast majority of music for ensemble includes or is limited to music for bowed strings! String quartets are possibly the most versatile ensemble, which is why there are so many of them.