Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Lindsey Stirling has a new video out linked to the Dragon Age video games:

You know, try as I might, I just can't think of a good video game link for my music. Civilization V?

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This looks like it might be a cool book. The Wall Street Journal review has a photo gallery of great rock album covers. My favourite:

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Speaking of pop music, Ann Althouse has a post up in which she refers to "a great musical artist". Go read the whole post and the link to the tribute post. The great artist in question is "Dimebag" Darrell, lead guitarist and songwriter for the heavy metal band Pantera. I put this up just because the idea of referring to Darrell as a great musical artist troubles me. Of course, this mere admission tags me as a mossback or classical snob. "Thou shalt not question the great artistry of pop musicians" is a commandment written down somewhere. But I have to be honest: aren't there hundreds of heavy metal bands? All with fervent followers? How many of them are great musical artists? All of them? None of them? A very few? I have heard Metallica called great musicians, but I'm not sure I understand why. I have a pretty clear idea that the Beatles really were great musicians and I have written dozens of posts here about why I think so. But I just have difficulty with elevating many other pop musicians to that level. Let me see if I can put my difficulty into perspective: I would have a similar difficulty labeling a great number of classical composers as great musicians. Frankly, most of them wrote rather predictable music for particular occasions and got paid for it. Someone like Georg Christoph Wagenseil wrote singularly uninspired keyboard concertos notable mainly for how dull they are compared with those of Mozart. Alongside every great classical composer like Haydn were a host of second-rate composers whose works sleep inside dusty covers in university libraries. And this is as it should be. So why is it so different for pop musicians? Is it just that every pop musician of some success has a devout following? In our adolescent years we get captured by a lot of passions. I admit to being really fond of Eric Burden and the Animals for a time in the mid-60s. But I'm over it now.

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Behind the paywall the Wall Street Journal has an article about Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. You can read it at this link. It's a pretty good essay on the piece, though lacking both musical examples and musical clips. But it does tell you the nicknames various pianists have given to the various movements, so there's that. Here is a superb performance by Grigory Sokolov with the score:

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Also in the Wall Street Journal is this persuasive essay arguing for contemporary piano music. One of the pieces mentioned is Ligeti's Automne à Varsovie:

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From the Guardian, here is a detailed account of a recent complete performance of all 20 Etudes for piano by Philip Glass.

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And yet another instance of rude airline employees bullying a musician traveling with his instrument. I ran into this a lot when I was touring. But, I also had good experiences. You never know...

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Here's an interesting article on the wood used for musical instruments. This story is about the high-altitude spruce trees growing in the Italian alps that Stradivarius used for his violins and that are still used for violins today. My guitar has a high-altitude spruce top as well, but from the mountains in British Columbia. The builder of my guitar, Robert Holroyd of Vancouver, selected the particular log he wanted and supervised the sawing into sections. Why you want a particularly straight-grain piece of wood grown at high altitude is not discussed in any detail in the article, but the reason is that at high altitudes trees grow much slower and therefore the annual growth rings, which are the grain of the wood, are very narrow instead of wide. This gives a better resonating plate for musical purposes. Or so I understand it! I have seen laser-generated photos of the way the top of a guitar vibrates at different frequencies--quite fascinating! I suspect that the tighter the grain, the more minutely flexible the wood is and therefore the more responsive to vibrating at different frequencies.

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Speaking of high altitudes, here is a piece by Villa-Lobos that I have always associated with mountains. His Prelude No. 4 for guitar, in my performance on the guitar by Robert Holroyd that I was just mentioning:


Jon said...

I have several friends who played in heavy metal bands in the 1990’s and they all are big fans of Dimebag Darrell as a guitar player and band leader. Within that genre, he does seem to be a widely admired musician.

As you allude to, one major issue is that it is hard to find agreement on the definition of a “great musical artist”. What should the standard of comparison be between musicians – performance practices, compositions, improvisational abilities, record sales? I’ve had a similar discussion about other musicians with friends and it seems that we always come to the conclusion that “great” musicians are judged on many different factors, most of which we can’t agree on. I had one close friend who believed the ability to successfully market one’s music was a hallmark of a great musician, regardless of how aesthetically bad the music actually was!

As an aside, one point that I don’t see mentioned much in writing about contemporary rock music is how expert one has to be in operating electronics in order to record and perform in the genre. I have known several rock musicians, whose instrumental setups consisted of 15 or 20 devices, including multiple amplifiers, EQs, compressors, audio processors, in addition to their instruments! I’m not sure that fluency in operating all of those electronics counts as a musical skill, but it is certainly a part of their overall craft where some expert knowledge is needed to make everything work correctly.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jon, as always, a very illuminating comment! I'm happy to be better informed about Dimebag Darrell. I watched some of him on YouTube, but probably didn't take the time to get a good sense of him as a musician.

I would venture that a great musical artist is one who expands or redefines or perfects a kind of style or genre and has a long-term influence on listeners and other musicians. The Beatles are my standard example of musicians like that. I am a great fan of Cream and Eric Clapton, but I wouldn't put them in the same category because their musical range was much narrower and influence correspondingly less. People who think that it is marketing ability that defines greatness in music are those who got us into this mess!!

Talking about electronics, I think that when you are talking about, for example, the electric guitar, what you are talking about is an instrument that is essentially electronic and therefore all the pedals and amplifiers and other equipment is inherently part of the instrument so expertise in its use is part of your skill as a musician. This also extends to the recording process as that is now partly compositional. Again, I would cite the Beatles' remarkably creative recordings.