Thursday, December 13, 2012

Vivian Fung: Dreamscapes



Many of us have attempted to train ourselves to lucid dream. Lying in our beds, we’ve tried to wrangle our thoughts into those of control, discipline, and predictability. Some, if not most, nights, though, we are left with bizarre, alien-like episodes that seem perfectly normal only until we wake up.
Somehow, though, despite our attempts at control, these beautifully strange dreams can stick with us, long after we’ve forgotten the story we tried to construct ourselves.
And, somehow, Vivan Fung’s new album Dreamscapes feels a lot like this. While only one piece on the five track album has the word “dream,” her abilities as a composer can take over the subconscious of the listener in any setting.
The Canadian-born composer’s works span from prepared piano pieces to string quartets, but she somehow finds a way to make each form sing new tones. Combining distinctive sounds of Western music with those of gamelan and other non-Western timbres, she equals something from a direction neither cardinal nor previously done. Dreamscapes is certainly no exception.
Like trying to control dreams, attempting to predict the direction of Fung’s works is futile. Throughout the album, with her Violin Concerto, her prepared piano pieces Glimpses, and her piano concerto “Dreamscapes,” melodies change instantaneously into rapid textures, otherworldly plucks of piano strings reverberate off of passing drones, and Americana brass back up gamelan-influenced violin lines. But the album is about more than mixing and contrasting—it’s about Fung’s ability to invent an entire world from a certain web of sound, and her knack for knowing exactly how to disintegrate it.
The album opens with Fung’s stunning Violin Concerto. Inspired by Javanese gamelan, the piece is a distinctly gamelan theme running through settings from around the world. Kristin Lee, the soloist who worked closely with Fung, does an impeccable job being both virtuosic and accurate with the demanding passages, and the Metropolis Ensemble (conducted by Andrew Cyr) moves well together, bouncing, traveling, and being able to release pressure all at once. Throughout the first half of the concerto, Lee is in control; she guides the orchestra and audience into desolate, high register moments, into chugging, brass-filled areas, all the while exploring the landscapes the orchestra reflects with the reminder of the concerto’s pelog scale influences. Almost exactly half-way through, the violin drops the orchestra, letting it quickly dissipate as the violin seems to travel down its range, leaping sideways to build, piece by rearranged piece, a museum of styles. It builds to a climax, navigating through the gamelan scales with violent tremolo. When the orchestra arrives, it becomes the leader with animal kingdom brass and distant strings lurking in the now-familiar scales. Lee comes back in focus with almost Chinese-sounding melodies, gliding over the orchestra with more grace than was introduced. Like the listener has learned, though, no one mood stays for long, and the concerto feels impressionistic for a few minutes before it releases again into period of thinness. The ending, identical to the beginning, is a palette cleanser and a mirror, so pristine it reflects the multifaceted body that preceded it. As the strings glissandi up, the violin holds out until a small gong-like instrument is played, letting go of every sound before it, seeming to resonate for minutes. 
“Glimpses,” the second group of pieces on the album, uses a gamelan-like prepared piano to provide exactly that, glimpses, into three very differently woven moods. The first movement, “Kotekan,” is titled after a gamelan style of fast, interlocking parts. With some notes ringing with a hollow sound, some vibrating against metal, and some shaking like strict percussion, Fung slowly builds a syncopated fabric, each tone bouncing off the next, each release as important as the contact.  “Show,” the second movement, fills the dents from the previous movement with a fluid, sometimes impressionistic wave still spiked with the textures of the prepared strings. The third movement, “Chant,” mentally abducts. Like a flying object, the piece passes by deep, resonating, buzzes from the strings as abstract strumming, wood knocking, and echoing phrases gently create a narrative to follow.
While “Glimpses” pulls us in each direction, tugging by the arm to each new window of sound, the album’s powerhouse “Dreamscapes” for piano and orchestra becomes an entire comprehensive world. Conor Hanick, the pianist for both “Glimpses” and “Dreamscapes,” plays the inside of the piano with as much dedication and confidence as he does the keys, allowing the listener to fully accept the strange, distinctly Fung atmosphere that quickly constructs itself after the opening sounds. The piece begins with surprising fervor that holds out, transitioning through micropolyphony, jazzy spells, and the exact theme from “Glimpses” movement “Kotekan,” which on strings sounds strangely regal. Like dreams, though, each setting is accepted. No matter how out of place a section seems through words, the listener’s subconscious is taken over by Fung’s ability to weave each theme, each melody, each cluster of tones into the same environment that the listener is fully immersed in. Hanick plays a large part in this hypnotizing quality. His playing, especially in sections with undefined structure and simmering mixing of tones, is restrained and resists the temptation to become over-powerful in the delicate balance; he is also able to release off of these moments into commanding periods. After an orchestral sigh, around two-thirds into the piece, the direction of the piece becomes steeper, denser, and more urgent. Eventually, everything begins to spread out as old themes are resurrected in simple versions. As the world we have come to know disintegrates, an alien-like glimmer resonates behind the still tentative piano, which eventually dissolves.
Many composers fuse genres. Many composers build worlds. And, naturally, many composers have dreams. But what sets Fung apart is her ability to take over the subconscious of the listener, to build a world so captivating that even the strangest of transitions happen seamlessly. Lucid dreaming may seem enticing, but being taken away to Fung’s world would probably take the cake. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Raise the Levels of the Boom Inside the Ear

              It’s safe to say that most, if not all, humans have had an experience with an irresistible beat. Perhaps a piece of music playing in a store made you tap your fingers on the handle of your shopping cart. Maybe you found yourself nodding your head at a stoplight to a song on the radio. Around three weeks ago, in fact, I was at a jazz concert, and I found that my crossed leg had become a separate entity, bobbing to Davis’s “All Blues” with alarming intensity while still synchronized with my shaking head. It’s as if you’re a pinball, and the beat is the colorful, blinking walls and obstacles you simply cannot avoid bouncing off of.
                When referencing the body-wrangling abilities of musical beats, it’s hard for rap to not find its way into the conversation. It’s the genre that is served on a platter of beats (not to be confused with a platter of beets, a very different phenomenon). Without a beat, rap becomes spoken word. It’s what sets the mood and keeps the heads nodding, and its twists and turns shape the lyrics. Unfortunately for the genre, the Billboard charts have painted the portrait of rap as a somewhat tasteless, image-focused section of the music community, gaining many haters of the mere idea of rap (h8ers? I promise to never type that word on this blog again).
                But there is a subdivision of rap, one that spews not only quality lyrics and flow but also beats that have refined bass lines, pure jazz, and real developments. Alternative rap, developed in the 90s especially, set up the foundation for the quality rappers of today. Plus, along with their irresistible beats, one feels pretty awesome blasting their songs through open windows during late night drives (one = me).

ATCQ
                The pioneers of respected alternative rap, in my opinion, are definitely the rappers in the group A Tribe Called Quest. From Queens, the group changed the outlook on rap, using intelligent metaphors, artistic verses, and, especially, tasteful beats. Close to all of their songs have strong, funky, beautiful bass lines. These are particularly pronounced in their album The Low End Theory, which produced many unbeatable songs as well as helped solidify the connection between hip hop and jazz, one that seems destined but surprisingly wasn't definite previously. Their song “Jazz (We’ve Got),” which samples Lucky Thompson’s “Green Dolphin Street,” is a perfect example of the Tribe’s ability to be both culturally aware and modern. The bouncing bass line begs to be rapped to, and the long pulses of the (I think) Hammond B3 organ keep the track on its cool course. The chorus, in which the members speak quietly “We got the jaaaazzz, we got the jaaaazzz,” includes Lucky Thompson’s saxophone jumping a perfect fourth and then chromatically descending down in between the original B flat. It’s slightly eerie, but mostly conjures images of smoky, black and white streets at night.


                Another A Tribe Called Quest song that demonstrates their influential, groundbreaking status is their song “Electric Relaxation” from the album Midnight Marauders. The song samples Ronnie Parker’s “Mystic Brew,” a cool jam with a simple drum beat, a funky bass line, and three satisfying pairs of chords on guitar. When Tribe used the song, they transposed it down a couple of steps, added a heavier beat, and layered a sound effect over the chorus and select parts of the verses that I can only describe as something that would play as a guy with an afro and bell bottoms walked down the street. “Electric Relaxation” is one of the few songs in hip hop with a three bar loop. The beat is not only addicting, but shows that a hip hop song does not need gunshot sound effects or overly intense electronics to be irresistible—in fact, it’s usually better when it doesn't (the song also has my favorite lyric of all time, rapped by Q-Tip: “They know the abstract is really soul on ice, the character is of men, never ever of mice”). Other pioneering alternative rap groups during the late 80s and 90s include De La Soul, Jurassic 5, and Jungle Brothers.


                A Tribe Called Quest’s legacy has inspired many new rap groups who are invading the mainstream with real instruments and attention to the poetry of the lyrics. Atmosphere, a rap group composed of rapper Slug and producer Ant, are probably the most popular group that currently carries on the values of groups like A Tribe Called Quest. Atmosphere’s beats are not based as heavily on jazzy bass lines, but other mostly acoustic styles, ranging from calm guitar to dense, singer-songwriter-like piano to distorted electric guitar licks. Atmosphere’s song “Sound Is Vibration” uses some slightly Debussy sounding harp chords, but paired with the drum beat and the held out pitches, it becomes a perfect foundation for Slug’s and Spawn’s verses.


Slug
                Another member of the revival of alternative rap is Aesop Rock, an intense and sometimes abstract lyricist who raps in front of a variety of different beats. Slightly more experimental than Atmosphere, his lyrics are seemingly more incoherent, while the beats fit into genres less concretely. Instead of polished, revealing songs, Aesop Rock has the quality of a slam poet, somewhat everywhere, jumbles of sound and words, all coming together for songs that redefine what it means to be a hip hop artist. His song "Shere Kahn" is a calm, slow moving beat with many different flavors. It’s slightly African inspired, slightly orchestral, and slightly Middle Eastern. Much of the song is without lyrics, instead having random spurts of flute and bassoon, brass, oboe, whistling, record scratching, a female singer, and other bursts. When Aesop Rock does come in, however, he’s explosive. The song doesn’t bring to mind the hip hop that we’ve been conditioned to recognize, the world of gold chains and sagging pants, but reminds the listener that hip hop is an art, not just an image. The beat is so strange that it becomes irresistible after a few listens, your head bobbing in a sort of trance.


Aesop Rock
                Alternative rap teaches us many things: hip hop doesn’t have to be a self-involved, shiny, misogynistic genre, beats can be made out of tasteful jazz and acoustic samples, and lyrics can be as poetic as the next spoken word artist’s lines. From pioneering, legendary groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to members of the modern revival of alternative hip hop like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, there are beats all around us that are irresistible and draw us in. If you start listening to these masters of rhymes and beats, you’ll soon find yourself bobbing your head, tapping your foot, wiggling your fingers. Or, if you’re like me, driving down the road with the windows rolled down, rapping the chorus into the night. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Loose Blues

I'm quite sorry for not blogging for a long time. I'm currently writing a longer post, so stay tuned, but in the mean time, here's a watercolor I did of Bill Evans: 


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Don't Fret (ha ha... ha)

                Maybe it’s the kitschy but abundant associations with campfires, or perhaps it’s the secret desire that we all (debatably) have to become professional flamenco dancers, but the sound of a guitar holds a certain amount of relatable energy to it, some kind of mysteriously familiar timbre. Air-guitaring is basically a developmental skill, and the instrument is often played by children and fantasized about by aspiring rock stars.
                The guitar is looked up to as an instrument that can do anything and still be familiar and household. Music sometimes is not this; it's easy to look at music (especially composed, "classical" music) as a daunting, complex web when it really is just the familiar sounds we know woven together, most often. The guitar, being the superhero it can be, can take down these walls of bias and fear.  

photo by Brian Richardson
                I had a seemingly mundane experience a couple nights ago that showed me some truth to the simplicity of sound, and I hope my attempt at a metaphor here doesn't totally fail. 
                It was a warm summer night, and I had spent the last few hours listening to music, so I rolled the windows down in my car and drove the quiet, river-parallel street home. The large portion of the road goes along houses with large chunks of land in front of them, so there aren’t any major buildings or structures close to where I was driving. The sound of my car against the street was single-pitched and constant, only changing when I would slow down or turn.
                But as I turned onto the road that leads to my house, the fields disappear and bigger, more solid fences become closer to the road. As I would drive past a wall or fence, the sounds of my car and the wind would bounce back at me, making a louder sound than when I would drive past open air. Since the walls were split up, it would make a sort of rhythm.
                This reminded me that sound isn’t some tangible thing that spills out of instruments or a wall that orchestras create, but a simple thing, actual waves that can bend and disappear and reflect. I know this seems very far from the theme of this post, but it made me think about the guitar—the instrument’s vulnerability from the common, rural foundations it has in our culture and the universal knowledge of its workings and sound make it seem more of a person among us than something in an instrument shop. It’s like the difference between hearing, say, Obama speak at a conference and your aunt speak at the dinner table.
                After all that attempted allegory, what I’m trying to say is that the guitar and all its cultural power can remind us how the sounds that create music, from rock to classical, are ingrained in all of us and aren’t as daunting as they sometimes can seem.
                Shall we examine the guitar’s place in varying genres of classical/classical-leaning music?
                The place where I’ve been immersing myself in stringed sounds lately is Pat Metheny’s solo music, sort of jazz-folk-alternative stuff. After obsessing over his interpretation of “Electric Counterpoint,” I found a record of his at the store I go in about once a week. The record was New Chautauqua, his 1979 album of solo work—the instruments included are electric 6 and 12 string guitars, acoustic guitar, 15 string harp guitar, and electric bass, all played by Metheny. His playing is ethereal, and he has the ability to make a dense jumble of notes the clearest thing you’ll ever hear with his rapid picking and spot-on emphasis. His solo stuff, unlike the Pat Metheny Group’s more traditional jazz sound, is dreamlike and something you would listen to on a road trip in a beat up truck across the desert. The sounds of the guitars in his pieces are both grottos of amazement and comforting because of their familiarity.
                Check out the title track for a classic, feel-good jam:


                Or “Country Poem,” my favorite, for a nostalgic piece that calls for a far away, long ago home:


                OOORRRR another one of my favorites, “Sueño con Mexico,” a gentle, flowing piece:


                Another group of music that has to be mentioned is the classical guitar repertoire. From the Renaissance to the present, stringed instruments like the guitar have been common instruments to write for, and their familiar, relatable quality is constant throughout. In the Baroque era, composers like Gaspar Sanz and Francesco Corbetta were guitarists while composers like Robert di Visée or Sylvius Leopold Weiss were lutenists. During the Romantic era, the guitar began showing up in landmark composers’ works, such as in Paganini’s virtuoso pieces for the instrument, like his Capriccio No. 5:


…that inspired Steve Vai’s “Eugene’s Trick Bag” for the movie “Crossroads”:


The 19th century was the “Golden Age” for guitar, with composers who wrote specifically for the instrument, bringing it into the spotlight. Francisco Tárrega, a Spanish guitarist and composer, wrote some beautiful music during the period, like his “Capricho Arabe."
It’s haunting and sounds traditional at first, which it definitely is because of Tárrega’s influence on the rest of the guitar repertoire, but the flares make it seem like a spontaneous humanoid or whatever a guitar can be that’s close to a human. This is what a lot of classical guitar repertoire does—it brings the common landscapes of classical music to a medium that often reminds us of modern experiences, which can remind us how proverbial the music we call “classical” really is.
                And then there’s one of the coolest nooks in which the guitar can reside, contemporary music. I’m not talking about rock or indie or the places people can find guitar instantly, but the family of music that is ingrained in violins and pianos but accepts the guitar so perfectly. Both acoustic and electric guitars melt seamlessly into the different sounds of today’s music. An example I came upon while watching “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is “Phone Call” by Jon Brion, the rock musician and composer. The trembling outlines of C sharp major to F minor sound toy-like, as if they would come out of a windup toy from a different planet. Against the stability of the strings, it’s a beautiful little piece:


Mark Dancigers is one of the most prolific guitarists in the contemporary world right now. He’s in the NOW Ensemble, composes, and does many side and solo projects. He’s most often on electric guitar, and the rebellious flavor that has come to be associated with electric anything mixes with the traditional orchestra instruments like richness and acidity (either can be either)—opposite, perfect.  Take the excerpt from his “Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra” with the Princeton University Orchestra. The way the notes bend up and down from the strings is like sound waves themselves. Or his anchoring position in Judd Greenstein's "Sing Along":


                The guitar really isn’t unlike any other instrument. It has strings that need to be tuned, virtuosos, and pieces composed for it. But the cultural position of the guitar, one that resides so close to people who don’t even play it, can help it bring the pieces it’s included in out of the daunting roles they’re sometimes given. After all, even we classical fanatics fantasize of rock star dreams.


                

Friday, June 1, 2012

Hello to the period of not finding angles of random hexagons on graph paper.

As of today, after the brutal (not really) geometry final of my sophomore year, I am on summer vacation. For the first few days, this means finishing Six Feet Under, but after that it means music camp, a writing camp at Kenyon College, and much listening, blogging, and some string ensemble writing as well as the composing of the score to my friend's film (and backpacking if the entire Gila National Forest doesn't burn down). 

For now, here are some pieces that seem very summery to me (two of them are coincidentally on the same album, which is a very good one that you should definitely buy, Big Beautiful Dark and Scary from Bang on a Can): 

For the feeling of first realizing it is summer (this has also been my constant driving soundtrack of the week)(and doesn't the section starting at 2:17 make your heart hurt in a great way?): 

For realizing all the creative things you could have probably done before but now have absolute, free reign to accomplish: 

For the strange, mysterious feelings of summer, the parts with lulls and unawareness of dates:

          I can't find a video for it or a place where you can listen to it fully, but here's the link to a limited       amount of listening:  http://www.allmusic.com/performance/shadow-bang-theater-piece-mq0001925950


For the times when you do so little you start realizing more: 

And for the times when you just feel good about life: 




Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bist du verrückt, Gelb, mein Sohn?

          I’m quickly realizing that maybe school needs to get out at, like, 10 am so we can all keep up with the newest Metropolitan Opera mini-scandals.
          As of yesterday, the now-infamous Peter Gelb has struck and un-struck the press with another disapproval of criticism.

Gelb

Robert Lepage
Lepage
         
Gelb has been the Met Opera’s general manager since 2006, and in the past few months, it seems he has received nothing but criticism. The company’s “Ring” Cycle productions have been the talk of the opera/music community for a while due to the previous promises of greatness and grand staging. Despite the buildup, the Met’s cycle (more specifically, Robert Lepage’s staging) have been called distracting, disappointing, “puny,” and, in one of the most negative sentences I’ve seen Alex Ross write in a while, “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

The set everyone seemed to hear about 
         The reason for a large fraction of the Met’s recent criticisms, however, is not necessarily the production itself, but Gelb. “Revolutionary,” the word Gelb used to describe Lepage’s work on the productions, has been repeated by many with raised eyebrows and exclamations of “really?” Gelb has continued this over-laudatory behavior in past weeks, which one can only liken to the parent of the child whose mommy says “they’re good at everything.” You know, the one whose kid always seems to win the board games.
         On three separate occasions, Gelb has contacted the source of negative reviews and complained, resulting in their retraction, deletion, or discontinuation. At the beginning of May, Olivia Giovetti of WQXR posted a negative rant about Gelb and the Met’s productions on the Operavore blog of the radio station’s website. WQXR pulled the piece a mere day after its publication. While executives of the station say it was a decision due to their own dissatisfaction with the piece, Gelb’s strange hypersensitivity begs to differ. The New York Times reported him saying: “I told [Laura Walker, president of WNYC] I thought it was objectionable… It was an awful and nasty piece, which in my opinion was totally unjustified.”
        And now, just a few weeks after the WQXR incident, Gelb has fashioned another guard for a mouth of criticism. Opera News, a widely read opera magazine, published a well-written review by Fred Cohn critical of Lepage’s staging of the final installment in the cycle, “Götterdämmerung.” The magazine then announced it would stop publishing reviews about the Met altogether, with pressure from Gelb to do so.  However, just a day later, Gelb retracted his decision, saying he “think [he] made a mistake” (New York Times). Seeing as Opera News is published by the Met Guild, it seems only logical that the magazine would have to report on the productions of its mother organization; Gelb thinks the opposite. Again, from the article in the New York Times by Daniel J. Wakin:

Mr. Gelb said in an interview on Monday that the decision was made “in collaboration with the guild” but that he never liked the idea that an organization created to support the Met had a publication passing judgment on its productions. Worse yet, he said, is a publication that “continuously rips into” an institution that its parent is supposed to help.

His pseudo-reasoning is also humorous (from the same article): “Clearly the public would miss Opera News not being able to review the Met, and we are responding to that.”
        Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but criticism is usually negative. It’s also a large part of putting on a production, or doing anything in life. So it’s a little frustrating when we see a man like Gelb, someone who is supposed to be leading the Met in the best direction he can, wasting his and our time with his immature handling of criticism. If you are going to put on a production, especially in one of the most famous venues in the US, you’d better be prepared for criticism from the most common and strangest corners of the internet and papers. This is almost inevitable and cannot be stopped. It’s pretentious and pathetic to ask for criticism to be removed, for you are only masking the problem with a mask made of glass. A better solution would be to tweak the performance that is creating the negative reviews rather than the reviews themselves.
        In the next 4 years of Gelb’s presumed stay at the Met, the company has said they will be performing 62 productions, 17 of which are new (including Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys"). That is an ambitious and heavy load. I can only hope that Lepage’s future staging will garner more positive reactions, if he continues to partner with the Met, and Gelb learns to open his eyes from the filtering squint they seem to be in nowadays.

Criticism?? SEIZE IT, SIGFRIED. 
                

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How It's Made

          I painted my nails 2 days ago.
          WHOAAAA, you guys. Don’t get too excited.
Alright, alright. It really wasn’t that exciting. After getting a Schoenberg record at my local record store and listening to Nadia Sirota’s channel on Q2, I painted my nails with Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme symbols (H on the left, in regards to the dominant hand) and thought, why is it so strangely satisfying to manifest our love for music in non-sonic ways?


I'm mainly into this photo because I look like I'm emerging from the depths ofThe Schoenberg Shadows.

                Like Andrew Ford said in his recent spot-on essay about why we need music, music is the most abstract of the arts. He discusses that most everyone is able to “think musically,” and this is why music is loved by everyone and is an art that (for the most part) requires no expertise to enjoy and experience.
                As Ford and most music lovers iterate, we love music because of its ability to adapt to any situation, to go with us everywhere, and to be the art that reaches the core of our ability to feel. But there are some times when even the aficionados of wordless, pictureless art want something visual or constant to hold on to. Something partially tangible we can recognize in the sounds we hear through the black foam of the speakers.
                To me, this seems like a reason, while definitely not the main one, composers create new musical theories. I’m not talking about the basic organizers of music, but the newly formed, purposefully-engineered systems or modes that composers weave through their pieces for listeners and theorists to analyze. When listening to the third movement of John Adams’s “Naïve and Sentimental Music,” “Chain to the Rhythm,” for example, it’s a fulfilling thing to look at the score and watch the cells of the chain go by. While most of the music lover’s satisfaction of listening to this movement will be from the chugging strings and cries of brass, denying enjoyment from seeing and understanding a concept of the piece is difficult.
                In the mid-20th century, many new theories were created, seemingly, for only academic or rebellious reasons. But I have a feeling that being able to represent sound with rules or specific notation was satisfying for the composer. It certainly is for the listener. Whether simple or complex, these patterns offer some definitely awesome connectedness.
                One of the pioneering composers in the 20th century, Béla Bartók was also a pioneer of composition techniques. Bartók was influenced heavily by folk melodies from Magyar and Asia, but incorporated influences from modern composers during his time, such as Debussy and Strauss. This combination makes Bartók’s music rich with tones that humans naturally respond to as well as the flavors of modernism that call for more than just one listen. He’s a braid with one strand traditional, one strand modern, and one strand pure creativity (with countless other strands weaved in, so he would be... a rope?). Bartók achieved this balance with different methods, one of them being the axis system. The axis system relates notes through “axes,” or poles that represent relationships between notes through various pitches they share as relatives; these pairs of notes can then be used as substitutions for each other. For example, Eb and A are related through their common minor thirds C and F#. Eb and A are a tritone away from each other, as are C and F#. There are three axes: tonic, dominant, and subdominant that, together, include the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Each axis has a primary pole and a secondary branch (the relationship between two notes), each of which has a pole and a counterpole (the two notes in that branch).


Béla, looking molto bella(o). 

A wonderful, wonderful diagram from Erno Lendvai's essay entitled "Symmetries of Music: An Introduction to the Semantics of Music," published 1993 by  the Kodaly Institute in Kecskemet. 

                For Bartók, the axis system allowed for tonal substitutions in his compositions, which probably account for a lot of the reason he can sound traditional and modern at the same time. Bluebeard’s Castle, his gorgeous/creepy one-act opera, uses the system not only in singular notes and chords, but in the relationships between different scenes and themes, as pointed out by this webpage on the system. It’s actually quite mystical how everything is related—the Night Theme and Light Theme both end on, start on, and utilize F# and C (respectively). The relationship between the flower-garden and lake of tears (both areas that lie behind doors in Bluebeard’s castle) is the same, only using Eb and A. There are many other examples of the system throughout the work—they can be found in countless, small chord relationships. And, as Chris McGovern pointed out to me on Twitter, the opera’s endless connections continue with a bunch of people (3) with B-alliterated names involved.


                Another concrete idea to describe an aspect of modern music is micropolyphony. In a way, the “concrete” term (is it strange to quote a word I just typed approximately 4 seconds ago?) is used to describe the seemingly abstract—those dissonant chords that slowly shift over time, creating a buzzing-bee-hive effect. György Ligeti, the composer who developed (and frequently composed with) the texture, used a dream he had as inspiration for the technique:

As a small child I once had a dream that I could not get to my cot, to my safe haven, because the whole room was filled with a dense confused tangle of fine filaments. It looked like the web I had seen silkworms fill their box with as they change into pupas. I was caught up in the immense web together with both living things and objects of various kinds—huge moths, a variety of beetles—which tried to get to the flickering flame of the candle in the room… Every time a beetle or a moth moved, the entire web started shaking so that the big, heavy pillows were swinging about, which, in turn, made the web rock harder… The succession of these sudden, unexpected events gradually brought about a change in the internal structure, in the texture of the web. In places knots formed, thickening into an almost solid mass, caverns opened up where shreds of the original web were floating about like gossamer. All these changes seemed like an irreversible process, never returning to earlier states again. An indescribable sadness hung over these shifting forms and structure, the hopelessness of passing time and the melancholy of unalterable past events. (from Richard Steinitz’s book György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination)
(is it safe to say that little György was destined to be an avant-garde composer since childhood?)

Much of micropolyphony has to do with the multiplication and ever-thinning of the pulse. Stephen Taylor wrote in “Chopin, Pygmies, and Tempo Fugue: Ligeti's ‘Automne a Varsovie’”,

In many earlier [Ligeti] works, the pulse is divided into two, three, and so on--even thirteenth-tuplets occasionally appear. The effect of these different subdivisions, especially when they occur simultaneously, is to blur the sonic landscape, creating a micropolyphonic web of sound. The smallest common denominator of all these subdivisions is a microscopic fraction of a beat; no one can hear it, much less count it.

Ligeti took these strange, otherworldly flavors, created clouds of sound, and developed a technique around it. It gives understanding to the force while not taking any of the magic away from it. It’s satisfying. This technique is still ubiquitous today, being used by composers like Haas or Penderecki.


The last example I’ll talk about is set theory. I don’t even know if I really understand yet, but it’s pretty damn cool, so we’re going for it. I would like to preface this section by saying that if I got anything drastically (or minimally) wrong, please let me know! Here's a lovely website for understanding this idea. 
Set theory was developed because of the complete redefining of music organization that Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg brought to the world. Because the traditional organization methods of tonality were completely expelled by the Second Viennese School, music theorists such as Howard Hanson and Allen Forte analyzed the work of modern composers and, quite mathematically, created ways to order and manipulate pitches; these are the techniques that created the 12-tone pieces we know today.
The basic beginnings of set theory are pitch class sets. Basically, any group of notes on the scale can made into a pitch class set. There are 12 pitches, starting with C, numbered 0-11. A popular set class during the explosion of the Second Viennese School was The Viennese Trichord, also known as 0, 1, 6, or C, Db, Gb.
These set classes are then inverted and transposed (or, how you would say in math, reflected and translated). Inversion is done by switching the direction of the set class’s intervals, and transposing is done by moving the entire set by a certain interval.  From there, the sets can be put into handfuls of different formulas and forms. Normal form and prime form are two examples of ways to organize a set class into specific sizes or positions, while an interval class vector is a space between two notes that are inverted onto each other.
Here’s a blurry-not-iPhone-cell-phone-picture of a page in the 90s textbook that every high school seems to have, the page that encompasses the idea that all these musical set theory rules seem to adhere to:

Did I mention the blurriness? And would you look at the early-90ness of that mathematician? I also believe you were not allowed to appear in textbooks of the past decades if you did not own overalls or fluffy hair.  

                These three examples make up only a miniscule fraction of the various theories, modes, symbols, and techniques that emerge every decade in the field of music. They are created to rebel. They are created to redefine or enlighten. Maybe a couple of them are created just to mess with us. But, all in all, most are satisfying to understand, because they allow our love for music to be somewhat visually or logically manifested. It’s a small part of the brain that craves that, but without that part, we wouldn’t have genius shows like this one: 

Don't tell me you've never seen this... 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

CDs that were recently released, and I also think you should be listening to them right now.

(see title) 

In no particular order: 


Secret Pulse - Zack Browning 

Browning, a composer accurately described as "way-cool," likes squares. So much, in fact, that the five pieces on this album are based on varying squares in the universe (the 5x5 Magic Square of Mars, the 9x9 Magic Square of the Moon, and the 3x3 Lo Shu Square). This album is perfectly varied, perfectly represented by top notch ensembles, and perfectly presented. When you hold it, it just feels right as a collection of music. The title track is like an energetic, genre-crossing ensemble mixed with a 9bit video game and a trailer for a Transformers movie. It's wonderful. 



The Eleanor Hovda Collection - Eleanor Hovda 

This four CD collection of the late Eleanor Hovda's music is like a museum. I was not particularly familiar with her work before I began listening to this collection, but it is one of those things that can get you obsessed with a composer. The four discs are Ariadne Music, Coastal Traces, Sound Around the Sound, and Excavations. Her music is organic, windy, and open with some episodes of order, such as in the Etezady-like murmurs in the piece "Snapdragon." This is a lovely tribute to her and definitely a collection worth owning. 

Krzysztof Penderecki / Jonny Greenwood 

I'm honestly not sure if this album has an official name or not, but nonetheless, it is lovely. Penderecki and Greenwood are so similar in terms of musical ideals, but their approaches to similar goals are completely different. Penderecki's famous sound of somehow controlled chaos, creepiness, and bugs balance with Greenwood's more organized, sometimes-tonal-sounding (but still dispersed) timbres. Greenwood's "Popcorn Superhet Receiver," while not a new work, is the stand-out piece for me because of its constant sense of beauty rather than experiment. And, as I've stated before, I have a really large crush on Jonny, largely because of this. And this



Still Sound - Bruce Levingston 

Levingston is often thought of as a contemporary maven. His foundation Premiere Commission is an organization that promotes the commissioning of works for himself and other musicians, and he collaborates with the contemporary violinist Colin Jacobsen often. But what really, in my opinion, makes someone's experience with contemporary music really show is their ability to mix it with pieces from other periods. Still Sound's bulk is by the composer Augusta Gross, but the contemporary piano pieces are surrounded by other glassy, watery works by Pärt, Chopin, Satie, Schubert, and William Bolcom, another modern composer. His playing is seamless and enticing. This is a perfect family of sound and mix of time. 



...Eco de Violín - Colin Sorgi and Jooen Pak 

I like this album for two reasons: 

1) It is teaching me about a section of music--new Latin American--that I'm not too familiar with but should be. You can hear small influences of Latin music, but only in some of the spacing between notes or flavors of small percussion. 
2) Is that cover gorgeous or WHAT. 

The music itself isn't what I would call the most interesting stuff I've heard, but it's enjoyable. This isn't an album I would return to over and over again, but it's a good introduction to this area of music. 


White Ladder - David Gray 

Let's just disregard the fact that this is neither new nor fits in with the rest of my selections... but I started listening to this album again recently, and it brought back many nights of dancing when I was about 6 because my mom was obsessed with Gray back then. And now every trip in my car is backed up by "Please Forgive Me," a masterpiece of a song. If I could force every home in America to have this on their shelves, I would. Trust me. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Tip-Toeing Around

The Spring for Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge has ended, and I got fourth! This is basically the most awesome thing ever. Thank you so much if you voted or read my blog because of it. Here's a post about a new White House initiative, and a "what's goin on right now" post is coming up, along with CD reviews.


It’s a pretty cool feeling when you suspect Obama is reading your mind. Disregarding realistic explanations, I’m going to stick with that suspicion.
I recently finished participating in a blogging competition called the Great Arts Blogger Challenge, one that focused on culture blogs and was held by the Spring for Music festival. The other bloggers and I spent our weeks waiting for prompts to respond to, obsessively (maybe that only applies to me) checking our emails for the question to answer with 1,000 or so words for the next week’s voting. The competition’s prompts seemed to focus on the fate of the arts in our modern world, having us talking about Secretaries of Arts, culture capitals, or “saving the arts,” sometimes utilizing paintings or pictures of cats.
            All of this talk about the fate of the arts got a lot of us bloggers writing about arts education. It reminded me how important my arts education has been up to this point—when I was 6, I was pounding out syncopated beats on small percussion instruments. When I was 12, my classmates and I were required to be in the school musical. I may have had only nine words in that production (four of them were the same, but trust me—they were crucial), but I learned stage presence, how to harmonize in a chorus, and the importance of practice, not to mention improving my sight reading.  I accompanied a chorus on the piano for the first time when I was 11 for my school’s annual choir concert at the choir director’s insistence of featuring student musicians. They sang Ode to Joy, and pounding out all those octaves felt pretty awesome.
            It’s easy to take these things for granted. After writing the answer to the prompts, I realized that a large population of kids in the US right now aren’t playing instruments or learning how to read music. And that is unfair, depressing, and depriving. As I stated in my post about having a Secretary for the Arts, every kid should have the opportunity to discover something in the arts they love—usually, this is impossible to avoid—because having a passion is one of the most comforting things to rely on when going through childhood or adolescence. I think all of the bloggers, and probably most of the population, can agree that the ideal situation would be an exceptional arts program in every school.
            Then, lo and behold, I see this post on the New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog, saying that the President’s Committee has created an initiative to further arts education in some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools and impoverished . It’s called the Turnaround Arts Initiative, and it will have celebrity artists (Turnaround Artists) “adopt” the schools and work with them, as well as implement programs that, the website says, will “increase the likelihood of successful school turnaround, engage their community, and raise the visibility of their achievements.


            The first (and main) reaction to this initiative: AWESOME. Finally, we have an updated, current government proposal to support arts education instead of reforming past acts. Just the fact that this has been started shows that priorities are being considered (isn't it something like 93% of people think the arts are important to education?). Plus, what kid wouldn’t be psyched to have Yo-Yo Ma come to his/her school (probably a lot, but maybe that will change after the two years)? There will be no harm done by this project, and the kids that will be able to experience it will benefit tremendously.
            But, I have some concerns with this initiative, more in its tentative attitude and execution of its goals than the goals’ intentions. 
            The website emphasizes that Turnaround Arts is going to “test the theory” that arts education is important in schools. It’s as if the creators of the initiative are worried that having more arts in schools will fail, and if it does, we’ll just go back to the way it has been. The arts seem, to me, as important at English, science, or manners. It puzzles me a bit that we are spending money and time deciding if they work when we should be going ahead and implementing them everywhere because they do. No Child Left Behind showed us how many holes can be left in a child’s education with the lack of attention to specific subjects—we should be rushing to implement arts programs in schools everywhere by now. Plus, the initiative argues that the arts will help kids with their academic education—nowhere does it say that the arts can be careers themselves. Kerry Washington, one of the Turnaround Artists, said, “Arts are actually how we can help them get the real work done.”

File:Kerry Washington LF.jpg
Kerry Washington (photo from lukeford.net)



File:Sarah Jessica Parker 3.jpg
SJP (photo by Christopher Peterson)

Another concerning factor of the initiative is the dependence on celebrity mentors, or Turnaround Artists of the schools that are a part of the initiative. Among the artists are Sarah Jessica Parker, Yo-Yo Ma, and Chuck Close. If the purpose of this initiative is to move towards improving arts education throughout the country, it seems a little reality-show-esque to call upon celebrities to lead the way to this goal. Now, the Turnaround Artists will definitely impact the people they work with and most will be incredible teachers, and it shows something about the people participating that they are committing to this project. But if Turnaround Arts is only in practice for two years, how much impact on the schools are these celebrities really going to have? Perhaps they will be remembered by one generation of the school’s students, and maybe they will be able to inspire a handful of kids towards arts related paths, but the only point of using celebrities is to, perhaps, bring attention and pseudo-validation to Turnaround Arts. We can’t be sure of how much time the celebrities will spend with the schools, and we can’t be sure if there will be any lasting impact on the structure of the institution’s arts programs. The website says the Turnaround Artists’ involvement will “take many forms, including participating in performances, master classes and community events at the school.” Who am I to say what will happen in the future, but it seems like they will come, make an impact on the school’s status during those two years, and finish, leaving some small changes and many utterances of “remember when Sarah Jessica Parker was here?” I hope to be proved wrong, but for now I'm skeptical.
            What we should be doing is installing permanent arts teachers whose main career focus is the school they teach at. I’ve never had a teacher who visibly made a lasting impact on the structure or personality of a school who had only been there for two years. In fact, the types of teachers that do that are usually at schools for decades.  Let’s talk about Gregg Breinberg. Let’s talk about Phil Hardymon.
            Don’t get me wrong. The intentions of the Turnaround Arts Initiative are commendable. But the toe-in-the-water approach seems useless. We as a nation know that the arts are important and serve as more than just supplements to other academic subjects. We know that arts education is necessary in every school of every city. And yes, we know celebrities are cool, but it seems frivolous to depend on two-year-mentors to turn schools around. Implementing arts education in America is going to take a while, but the arts matter. Would this niche of the internet, the one you’re reading, exist if they didn’t?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Great Arts Blogger Challenge: Capes, Kryptonite, and Other Things

Please read this, hum The Final Countdown, and VOTE FOR ME IN THE FINAL ROUND in the Spring for Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge!             


           Two nights ago, I went to a concert focusing on the composer John Kennedy. He has been the resident conductor of the Spoleto Festival for years, and also directs Santa Fe New Music. There were premieres of a few of his pieces, including his “iPhone 4tet,” in homage to John Cage for his centennial. But my favorite of the pieces was his string quartet “To the Power and Beauty of Everybody,” a melting, warm piece based off the poem of the same name by Kenneth Patchen, the beat poet who influenced people like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. The first paragraph of the poem goes like this:

            IF A POEM CAN BE HEADED INTO ITS PROPER CURRENT
            SOMEONE WILL TAKE IT WITHIN HIS HEART
            TO THE POWER AND BEAUTY OF EVERYBODY

And then there was a stanza like this:

          In the purest thought
When vanity and desire of all mortal ends
Have been submerged
We may join the thinking which is eternally around us
And be thought about
For the common good
We can only be humble before it
We can only worship ourselves because we are part of it

He later goes on to describe that this “it” is the silence after art, “the singers and dancers,” “coming from where it came from.”
            So when I read this poem after receiving the question for the final round of the Spring for Music blog challenge:

“Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does ‘saving’ them mean?”

…I thought, while in good nature, something seems wrong here. With this idea of “saving the arts.” It seems exaggerated, in a way, like that idea shouldn’t exist. But when the silence after Kennedy’s piece was so thick and overflowing with those little sighs people always give off after impactful sounds or certain phrases in spoken word, I realized the question just needed to be turned around.
            The reason so many people think we need to “save the arts,” if that accomplishment is even possible at our own hands, is because the arts save us.

The only picture I can think of to go with this post at the moment. COINCIDENTALLY, this drawing is by Alex Ross, I think, the comic book artist. I would like to see him write a piece for the New Yorker and for Alex Ross to write a comic book, for a strange experiment. 
            I hope I don’t sound like a reverend or something, but I think everyone who calls themselves an artist can testify to that idea, even if the wording is dramatic. Every time humans “save” something publically, whether it’s the whales or a small business, it’s about more than that specific thing that’s being rescued. It’s about the idea that thing represents, the countering of the force that brings whatever it is down. But it’s also about how it makes us feel to “save” things. When humans want to start a campaign to save something, it’s targeted towards making the donors feel good about themselves and hitting the nerve that identifies with the cause.
            It’s the same when people try to save the arts. Like I said in my previous post for this competition, the arts are what make us human. The ability to collectively identify with one idea or moment can bring someone out of any disheartening situation. It can save someone. So when we try to save the arts, we’re doing more than being empathetic towards ensembles, composers, poets, or painters, and we’re doing more than just trying to keep sound waves in the air—we’re fighting for our own right to receive those sound waves.
            Now, the effectiveness of what humans so far have done to try to “save” the arts is a different story, and we need to think about whether or not “saving” them is possible or necessary.
First of all, what are we trying to save them from?
            The reason “saving” the arts seems like such a strange idea is because part of the answer to this question ^^right up there^^ is “time.”
            Arts and their usage in the present are probably the best mirror of our culture. No one piece of art is going to speak equally to different generations, and that’s something that I think we as artists or art lovers just need to accept. Zachary Woolfe’s article in the New York Times about three months ago about the failure of the New York Philharmonic to program enough contemporary music (as well as female composers) is a perfect testament to this fact—if you’re an organization that represents a constantly moving field, you going to be ridiculed for trying to stay in the past (and only the past). “Relevancy,” like Greg Sandow has written about, is the idea that many ensembles and institutions are riding on to stay afloat. The SONiC Festival’s multi-venued program, the transition from big opera houses to the prevalence of smaller companies like Gotham Chamber Opera or Ensemble Parallele, or symphony program-worthy orchestration on the albums of Sufjan Stevens or Sam Amidon are all examples of the virus-like spreading of the arts. The arts that some think are ending. Hell, even Pitchfork picked up on some of this (to a certain degree). (To Nico Muhly—I did read that little fine print at the bottom of your latest post, and look. I’m not saying it. I’m only linking it. No Te Deums, please?).
            The arts as an entity are not dying and needing to be saved, they’re just changing like any other aspect of culture does.
  However.
            How can we explain fine arts’ transition into the background of culture? They may not be drying up and ceasing to exist, but I think most can agree that classical music, poetry, or fine visual art are not as popular as they were centuries or even decades ago.  Philadelphia, Syracuse, Detroit, Louisville, and New Mexico have all either lost symphonies or have symphonies in dire trouble. Public radio and many of the things me and my fellow finalists talked about in our previous posts are losing funding or are being threatened with no funding at all. The Grammys don’t broadcast the classical awards on television. If I make an announcement about an upcoming concert at my school’s assembly, I can bet I’ll either get some “hipster” comments or sort-of-but-not-really-jokingly sympathetic, in a way, looks from my friends.
            So, when we want to save the arts in this regard, what are we saving them from?
            Ourselves.
            The reason that the fine arts are being labeled as either arcane or irrelevant is because of our tendencies as humans. As long as we know, humans categorize things. We get distracted. We like to fit in to one group of people. We make preempted judgments. A lot of the time, these qualities are enemies to fine arts, and all of these qualities are amplified in modern times with technology. We are now constantly entertained. The fine arts don’t always aim to be “entertainment,” and this can drive away consumers because of boredom or subtleties that aren’t in popular culture. I personally consider the electronic musician Aphex Twin fine art, and just look at this comment thread on his song “Flim” that the dubstep artist Skrillex posted on his Facebook. The commenters hated the song because there wasn’t a drop (the moment in a dubstep song when all the heavy bass comes in, usually after a buildup and quick cliff hanger). I’m not ridiculing them—dubstep is fun to listen to, and when it’s your main source of music and you’ve been trained to follow the short-attention-span path of it, other electronic pieces seem boring or, as the last commenter put it, “light.” This is one small example, but it parallels many, many others.
            Addressing our tendency to categorize brings up this Sequenza 21 article, one that has another telling comment thread. We like to know what we like as humans, and genres of music help us do that. However, for classical music and other fine art genres (let me be clear that I don’t think “fine art” is the right way to describe these types of art, but it’s the only one I can think of), genre-assigning is not usually a helpful thing. If humans didn’t categorize music and other types of art, we would be open to so many more artists, bands, or composers. I’m sure that many people who like pop music would love the likes of Tristan Perich, Tyondai Braxton, or Sarah Kirkland-Snider, but because these composers are under the giant umbrella of “classical,” they are shut out by people who “don’t like classical music.” But even when we try to create these ultra-specific genres like New Synthetists or Indie-Classical (only referencing, Nico), we just get lost in the complication of categories and classifications.
           
            In conclusion, “saving” the arts is something we don’t need to do, because they don’t need saving. They change, they spread out, they become something new every second. However, fine arts are receding into the background of popular culture, and those of us interested in them have felt this desperate need to “save” them for years from that position. Why? Why do we, as humans, feel such an animal-like connection to the arts that we want them to be at the forefront of everything? Because they save us. They give us life and emotion. I talked to a couple of artists I know about this question, and here were a couple of the things I heard.
David Felberg, Associate Concertmaster of the New Mexico Philharmonic, Co-Artistic Director of Chatter:
“There’s always a struggle for fine, fine art. They’re definitely worth saving, because as you said, they save us. It brings us to a higher level of plain of existence, and it transcends the everyday. People are hungry for that, even if they don’t know it.”
My friend Brennan Rose, a French horn player in the Albuquerque Youth Symphony:
“The arts gave me something to do that was really high mentally. I’m concentrating, like, 95% of my brain on music when I’m playing it. And for me, it gave me something that I can put passion into and all my focus into. In school, you’re using your brain, but you’re only using part of it. With music, it gives you something that you can focus your brain on but put your artistic side into.”
Rich Boucher, local poet who was on five national poetry slam teams:
“You want to save the arts because life is not only about going to work, it’s not only about walking a line that’s difficult to walk, it’s also about the things you don’t need but want. Without art, I actually think that it would be a very hollow experience. Imagine going into a museum and there’s nothing on the walls. Imagine going to a concert and people are sitting there and listening to nothing. Art gives so much.”
Pamela Michaelis, former owner of The Collectors Guide and board member of Ensemble Music New Mexico:
“It seems to me that the arts are kind of like the wind and air. They’re alive. The arts will survive. We have to learn how to manage the people who manage the arts, the organizers. But the arts, in spite of everything that we do to screw them up, the arts will survive.”

I’m not posting these to have others make my argument for me. I just think these show how integral the arts are, and how people can’t live without them. People ranging from a poet to a violinist. People from an opera singer to a musicologist to an opera expert to a teenager.
So how do we “save” them? We make art. We love art. We write about art. And when we deal with money or arguments for/about art, we think about the art