Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Time to look around and see what's what in music this week. Tom Service has the latest in his symphony guide series up and this time it is the "Organ" Symphony of Saint-Saëns. I'm not a big fan of either the composer or the symphony. French 19th century music post-Berlioz seems to me paralyzed by its own pomposity--this piece in particular. But don't let me influence you! Have a listen and leave a comment:

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The scientists doing research into music seem to be finally getting into the swing of things. Researchers from the University of Kent report that "sad" music can cheer you up. Why? Because it's "beautiful". Well, that's what I've been saying...
The study identified a number of motives for sad people to select a particular piece of music they perceive as 'sad', but found that in some cases their goal in listening is not necessarily to enhance mood. In fact, choosing music identified as ‘beautiful’ was the only strategy that directly predicted mood enhancement, the researchers found.
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Here is an article about teaching composition. It is a rather odd sort of essay and doubt that it captures  much about how one learns how to compose:
we must address the master/apprentice mentality. I propose we to do this by continuing to allow more inquisitive learning to take place alongside modeling. Secondly, we desperately need to openly and pragmatically identify the inherent challenges of gender in composition. When you add gender roles into an extraordinarily male dominated system, the challenge becomes further complicated. 
These seeming "issues" appear to be more the fashion of the day than actually significant. I suspect my belief is that you really can't "teach" composition in the sense of making someone go through a set curriculum. Though some rare individuals can sometimes inspire other rare individuals.

Here is a quote from the first part of the essay. I have to say that I don't have the faintest idea what is being said!
Teaching composition requires a balance between the student and the teacher; between the micro and the macro. The strategy includes the teacher’s understanding of the creative process, the student’s reflection on that process, and a design of individually tailored tasks for the student—a set of activities mutually agreed upon. Constant shifting between the big picture and the small steps is critical.
I don't think anyone understands the "creative process".

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Heh, heh, heh! Here is yet another article taking up that perennial philosophical trap for the unwary, "is music a language?"
Listen to a few minutes of John Coltrane and Stan Getz tradingsaxophone licks, and there’s no denying that music is a form of conversation: The two jazz legends riff on each other’s melodies and build to a cat-and-mouse climax that is basically the musical equivalent of Shakespearean repartee.
But how the brain processes musical discourse is not well-understood. Is music a language? If not, how can we still use it to communicate?
Well, we don't of course. If I want you to meet me for coffee at 3pm this afternoon at Starbucks, I'm not going to hum you a tune.

But this research seems more a propos than most. They pretty much just hooked up some jazz musicians to MRI machines and looked to see what was going on when they were trading licks:
During the improvisations, the syntactic areas of players’ brains—that is, the areas that interpret the structure of sentences—were super active, as if the two players were speaking to each other. Meanwhile, the semantic areas of their brains—the parts that process language’s meaning—totally shut down. The brain regions that respond to musical and spoken conversation overlapped, in other words, but were not entirely the same.
Which is what I have claimed many times. Music is an intense form of communication--at least when we are listening closely to it--but it does not communicate any semantic specifics. Moods, not words.
“Meaning in music is fundamentally context-specific and imprecise, thereby differing wholly from meaning in natural language,” 
Yep. That's right. The "meaning" of a note, chord or phrase in a piece of music depends entirely on the context, that is to say, the structure. And this meaning is not linguistic, but aesthetic. That is to say that it is not telling you something specific, but what it is doing is communicating beauty. So this was actually a pretty good study of music.

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Let's listen to some of this beauty to close. Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major.


Bridge said...

Don't know that much about French 19th century music so I don't know whether I agree with what you say but I think the same could be said about much of Romanticism. It seems to me often too self-indulgent and pretentious for its own good.

I take issue with attempts to muddle up the act of composition by bringing in irrelevant factors. Gender roles, seriously? Yeah, how about no? I'm not a strong believer in them, I don't like to segregate people more than is necessary. It's foolish to say men and women are exactly the same, that certainly isn't the case either, but it's unsettling to me when people take something totally unrelated to the issue of gender like music and try to corrupt it with these ugly ideas. Yeah, sure, I look at men and women differently, I listen to music written by men and music differently, if that is even possible. That being said, there is no gender bias inherent in music, unless you consider women being expected to sing on average an octave higher than men gender bias. What, do the deep voices generally associated with authority and respectability carry more importance in music? Clearly not, the soprano is arguably the most prominent voice in a choral setting, to only offer the most abundantly obvious refutation. But I guess the patriarchy must in some way be involved, huh? In music there are only musical considerations. The different genders don't write different music, I at least cannot make even the remotest distinction - in fact I have yet to see even a minor example of male-specific or female-specific compositional techniques. There may have been a time when male musicians would be apprehensive about being conducted by a female conductor, or playing music written by a female, but those issues are entirely societal, they are in no way related to music. It's illogical to me to suggest that compositional pedagogy in some way caters only to men. One could even argue it is often too sterile and lifeless as-is. I'm very interested in hearing how the author of the article proposes to teach composition to females - specifically how much it ends up failing.

As regards the third post it was an interesting study, though I only skimmed it. A few issues - first of all, it's annoying to me when people only use the word beautiful to describe music (call it a pet peeve.) Music can be a countless number of things, many of which aren't necessarily beautiful, or can't be summed up using only that word. Otherwise agreed, though obviously music does not only communicate moods either. Syntax is also heavily contextual, different music means different things to different people. Music does have meaning, even if it does not correspond exactly to the semantics of spoken language. I am still personally of the opinion that music is not a "universal language."

Rickard Dahl said...

A few interesting things here. The Organ Symphony is quite interesting but far from my favorite symphony.

The third point: The author of the article makes two bad points basically. Firstly, the master-apprentince model seems to be possibly the best way to teach someone composition or learn composition. I personally don't see the point of getting a higher musical education in composing. It's most important to follow your ear and have a teacher who can directly give feedback and share important knowledge/tips/tricks/wisdom aquired through the teacher's compositional journey. You can learn music theory (when desired) at home, and if needed, with a private teacher's help. And besides, why not learn from the masters instead of music professors stuck with moderist or postmodernist ideologies or simply too conventional (overanalyzing music with theory and try to apply it to writing music in classical or romantic period styles which turns out sounding, I guess, boring compared to the real deal (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc. trusted their ears rather than overanalyzing using music theory)).

And gender... It's the same lies over and over again. Reality however shows that men and women are different biologically, including what they in general percieve to be interesting to do. Assuming that men and women are equally talented, it doesn't by default mean they should be 50/50 in every single profession. I think thatless women are interested in music composition, just like they are less interested in engineering and more intersted in nursing jobs for instance. Men and women make different career choices too which leads to the infamous "pay gap" myth. Men and women actually get paid about the same for the same job but overall if summing up all monthly salaries for men and women and divide by the amount of men and women in the workforce we get a magical number feminists use to try to push the myth that women and men earn differently for the same job. Reality is that men tend to work longer hours to support their family or do more dangerous jobs for instance. I don't think gender plays a significant role in music composition, if equal talent is assumed, but as usual, feminists try to blame everything on men and want to lower the bars for women (with affirmative action) instead of competing on the same level. I could go on with this topic a long time but I will just sum it up here: Women are supposedly discriminated everywhere they go (according to feminists), yet reality shows that there are many more types of discriminations against men and not only on the individual level but on the societal level (isn't for instance the draft still required for most if not all men in USA? or isn't male circumcision still allowed? or what about discrimination in the work force due to affirmative action? or how about men recieving more prison time for the same crimes? or clear systematic disadvantages for men in the family courts?). And as for music, if it's good music then it's good, no matter who wrote it.

About the meaning of music: I think the best definition of meaning of music would go something like that: "The meaning of music is dependent on the music piece itself, the context in which it is presented and the experience and thoughts of the listeners. It is in the end the listener who creates a meaning based on the music."

Btw, I pretty much agree with what Bridge said about the gender thing and the meaning of music.

Bryan Townsend said...

The first thing that jumps out at me in the Saint-Saëns symphony is that all the best ideas in it are stolen directly from Schubert's "Unfinished". Treated in a dull, undistinguished manner.

I tend to agree with you, Bridge, about gender roles. When I was doing my long, six-part review of the Hilary Hahn encore album, I really didn't take any notice of whether a piece was composed by a man or a woman. It just didn't seem relevant to the music. The aesthetic quality seemed to have nothing to do with the gender of the composer.

Bridge, I agree with you that music is not a universal language. One has to learn the significance of various musical gestures and their structural context. When I use the word "beauty" I mean more by that than just "pretty". Musical beauty, in my view, can include a lot of things that are not pretty, such as dissonance, pounding rhythms, blasting timbres and so on. It is just that we don't have the vocabulary. I follow the ancient Greeks who thought that there were only three really important things: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Art, obviously falls in the latter category.

Yes, Rickard, I agree, the master/apprentice model is one that seems to suit higher study in music. No, the USA does not currently have a military draft--it is an all volunteer military.