Improving classical music’s performance practices

I love (European) classical music; I’ve played it since I was five and think it can be one of the most emotionally moving and fulfilling things to do.

But it’s incredibly difficult to get me to go see a professional concert, especially a symphony concert.  Why?  Because the social etiquette surrounding the performance is so dull. And the program notes are often so pretentious.

Hence my amusement at this updated version of program notes from the New Yorker.  If the tone at classical performances were more like this:

The opening section, “From Dawn to Midday at Sea,” begins with the plaintive call of the oboe, announcing the rising sun. The English horn and the trumpet answer in a minor key, as if to say, “Thanks for the tip, asshole.” The flutes quickly change the subject, introducing the famous surging triplet melody. The theme bubbles and courses through the orchestra, constantly elaborated and ultimately recapitulated in a massive crescendo of horns and trumpets, at which point the flutes are totally drowned out and seem not a little jaded and you have to wonder if they regret having introduced the theme in the first place.

“The Play of the Waves” is often described as a scherzo, light and humorous, although, as in much of Debussy’s work, the laughs come at the expense of the violas.

…I’d be more willing to go!

Miles Davis: the Schoenberg of jazz?

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while–I’ve been incredibly busy with work, etc.  Now that things have calmed down a bit, eartotheground will be back up to speed.  Anyway:

As you may or may not know (I certainly didn’t know the specifics until I read this article), yesterday was the 50th birthday of Miles Davis’ landmark album Kind of Blue. That’s cool enough in itself, but what’s even cooler is how Slate‘s Fred Kaplan breaks down the nitty gritty of Davis’ innovative music theory.

Most music in what music scholars call the “common practice” period of European classical music is based on the notion of triadic chords: you’ve heard of a “C major chord” or an “a minor chord,” etc.  Triads in what we call “root position” have their main, or tonic, note on the bottom (i.e. as the lowest note) and then build two more harmonizing notes on top to create the familiar sound.  Plenty of other musical systems rely on this foundational principle of harmony, such as blues, many kinds of folk music and much of the pop we listen to today.  (One of the key harmonic differences among these musics is how the chords are patterned: Muddy Waters’ blues progressions are, for example, different from the progressions you’ll hear in a Mozart sonata, though many of the same kinds of chords may be used.)

Conventional harmony also relies on the notion of a key or tonic: a primary pitch and associated harmony (in D major, for example, this pitch would be D; in e minor, it’s e, and so forth, generally speaking) around which every other pitch and harmony is organized hierarchically.

Jazz was based on this general theory for a long, long time, until Davis came and blew (I’m resisting making a pun) the whole system out of the water on Kind of Blue.  In fact, chord progressions were (and often still are) perhaps more fundamental to jazz than to many other kinds of music due to jazz’s improvisational nature.  Musicians knew what chords were coming next and improvised on them; without mutual agreement on chords, it was impossible for the complex interplay of voices that is jazz to occur.

But in the 1950s, Davis was looking for the next new thing and lighted on his friend George Russell’s theory of modes, an entirely new way of thinking about the relationships and hierarchies among the 12 pitches available within the Western musical system:

Russell threw the compass out the window.  You could play all the notes of a scale, which is to say any and all notes.  “It is for the musician to sing his own song really,” Russell wrote, “without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord.”  In other words, he continued, “you are free to do anything” (the italics were his), “as long as you know where home is”–as long as you know where you’re going to wind up.

One night in 1958, Russell sat down with Davis at a piano and laid out his theory’s possibilities–how to link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited combinations.  Miles realized this was a way out of bebop’s cul-de-sac.  “Man,” he told Russell, “if Bird [Charlie Parker] was alive, this would kill him.”

Out of this new freedom was born Kind of Blue and an entirely new jazz landscape.  There are a few links in the article which are worth listening to, but better yet, pick up the album for yourself if you don’t already own it.

Also, read this quote.  I hope I’m not the only one who sees (infinitely more exciting and enjoyable-to-listen-to) echoes of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School in this approach:

“When you go this way,” [Davis] said, “you can go on forever.  You don’t have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time.  It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are….I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations.  There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”

Radical chic: a little more on politics and music

Tablet magazine gives a new book about Leonard Bernstein’s politics mixed reviews today:

The problem that Seldes faces in writing about Bernstein, then, is not to prove that politics mattered to him. Clearly, as Seldes writes in his introduction, “to ignore the impact of political forces upon Bernstein is to miss out on much of what enlivened and motivated him.” What Seldes must prove, rather, is that Bernstein’s politics should matter to us. For if Bernstein was known as a famous liberal, he is also widely remembered as a fatuous one.

It’s pretty clear from the review that its author Adam Kirsch is in no way convinced that Bernstein’s politics should matter to contemporary readers.  I’m not going to tackle the book itself, as reviewing something I haven’t read is more than a little ludicrous.

But I am going to tackle Kirsch’s last paragraph.

Yet Seldes overreaches when he concludes that “Bernstein’s compositional frustration had its roots more in the evolving American social fabric … than in his supposedly limited talents, his idiosyncrasies, his habits, and his psychological dispositions.” This gets the relationship between the artist and society exactly backwards: a genuine artist does not expect society to conform to his preferences, but exposes himself to the confusions of the time in order to find expression for them. There is, in fact, something rather silly in Seldes’s suggestion that America let Bernstein down by voting for Ronald Reagan. If Mahler could draw inspiration from the social chaos of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and Stravinsky and Schoenberg could keep composing through two world wars, surely a composer of similar stature could find a way to flourish in the much less adverse conditions of late-20th-century America. It follows pretty clearly that Bernstein was not a composer of that stature, just as he was not a political thinker or activist of lasting interest. Somewhere between Wolfe’s mockery and Seldes’s reverence lies the affection that Bernstein’s achievement, and his memory, actually deserve.

(Emphasis mine.)  Look, I don’t think Bernstein was an amazing composer, even if he had worked in a sociopolitical vacuum, so I’m not trying to agree with “Seldes’ reverence.”  But the logical progression here is absurd:

  1. Great artists draw on events that happen in the world around them–the more disruptive the better–in order to make great art; that is, turbulent times (on a personal level or on a much bigger scale) are a sort of prerequisite for good art.
  2. Two of the greatest composers of the twentieth century can be considered great partly because of the extreme upheaval of the times in which they were working.
  3. Bernstein lived in less-turbulent times, so his art should have been all the better.

What?!  If we believe statement #1, we have every reason to expect that Bernstein wouldn’t have been as “great” a composer as Mahler or Schoenberg–indeed, wouldn’t have had near enough raw material to transform into artistic greatness.  So why is this a point of criticism or surprise?  I’m not a fan of overly-romantic notions of great artists as tortured geniuses alchemizing their pain into wonderful art.  Certainly this is how some people work sometimes, but we have just as many examples of people who did great work and then were derailed by personal or societal  tragedy and/or poor decision-making.

Creative work of any kind, especially complex forms like Western classical composition, requires a clear head and mastery of technical minutiae as much as it requires “inspiration.”  All pathos all the time doesn’t produce optimal working conditions for anyone, even those whose job is more conducive to emotional and intellectual disruption.

Amusing interpretation of “Happy Birthday”

Here’s a clip that my friend Abigail brought to my (well, all her Facebook friends’) attention.  It’s really amusing if you know a little bit about the history of Western classical music.

More questionable Jewish hip hop

The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av starts tonight, so no new posts until tomorrow night at the earliest.  Please note, I think this track is pretty kitschy and awful, but it’s an interesting addition to the religious hip hop discussion.  I now present hip hop for Tisha B’Av:

Sorry about the lack of posts lately–I’ve been teaching at a music camp in South Jersey this week (really cute pics of my students to come, from the Inquirer).  Next week eartotheground will be back on the normal schedule.

“Poker Face” ad nauseam

An email that my good friend David sent yesterday:


Yeah, what.  Why on earth would this be considered a suitable orchestral piece?  It’s DANCE MUSIC for heaven’s sake–I don’t really see orchestra subscribers getting nasty in the aisles of the Kimmel to this soundtrack (or any other soundtrack, really).

When I first heard “Poker Face,” it really grated on me as I usually don’t like music that is quite so electronically processed (and it was being played EVERYWHERE too).  Also, I thought the latex leggings and Dalmatians were creepy.  At the time I was more aware of the fact that Lady Gaga wears pants as infrequently as possible, and figured that if that was her main claim to fame, she couldn’t put out very good music.

Then I read the Rolling Stone profile (to which unfortunately I can’t find a good link) of her in May, which portrayed her as an interesting person trying to be the next Madonna by revolutionizing how sex is discussed/used/portrayed in pop music.  I don’t know if I buy that she’s on that path yet–the rhetoric around her sexuality and that of her music seems to be “OMG wear pants”/”Wait, she’s bi?” as opposed to anything really fresh–but it’s nice to see someone with a grander project in mind.

But I did run across this acoustic version of “Poker Face,” which shows that Lady Gaga actually has quite a good voice and a command of phrasing that’s better than many people’s.

Interesting what different versions of the same song can reveal.

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