Memories

Music is a powerful tool for memory. Remember the songs you sang in grade school? The pop hits of the ‘90s? The song you listened to non-stop that one summer? Your pump-up running mix last spring? As I’m sure you do, I have playlists from various times in my life that transport me back instantly to moments and phases from my past. They bring with them memories both happy and sad, and are always accompanied by varying degrees of nostalgia.

Likewise, composers often attempt to evoke the same sorts of feelings of reminiscence and melancholy in their audiences. Dvorak is a particularly good example of this, because he was so attuned to the affect of his work. Anton Dvorak was a Czech composer who lived from 1841-1904. He was known for using folk melody in his works to create a nationalistic sound, and was so adept at this that he was brought to the United States to help create a “national musical idiom” and to direct the National Conservatory of Music of America. (America at this time was suffering a bit of a musical identity crisis)

*On a bit of a tangent, his use of melodic style and timbre allowed him to write such works as the New World Symphony and the “American” String Quartet, both beautiful examples of the American nationalist style at the turn of the century. That a Czech composer could create and capture what we hear as an “American” proves how effective it is to create a specific viewpoint with the manipulation of timbre.*

In the Czech nationalist style, Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, is comprised of seven songs and uses a different type of folk tune for the basis of each. The poems were originally written in Czech, but Dvorak had the poet, Adolf Heyduk, translate them to German because the cycle was to be premiered in Vienna. Both the Czech and German versions are in print and performed today. I’ve showcased two of the most melancholic and evocative songs below.

The first song uses motives that call to mind restlessness and sighs. It captures the mood for the cycle:

My Song Sounds of Love/ Má píseň zas mi láskou zní / Mein Lied ertönt, ein Liebespsalm

My song sounds of love

when the old day is dying;

it is sowing its shadows

and reaping a collections of pearls.

My song resonates with longing

while my feet roam distant lands.

My homeland is in the distant wilderness

– my song stirs with nationalism.

My song loudly resounds of love

while unplanned storms hasten.

I’m glad for the freedom that I no longer have

a portion in the dying of a brother.

Anne Sofie von Otter (This clip has the first three songs in German)

The 4th song is considered the crux of the set, and is often taken out of context and performed on its own. It is entitled “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” a name sometimes used to describe the entire collection. The song is about the passing down of music and the memories within the tunes. It evokes these feelings of wistfulness and nostalgia even in those hearing the song for the first time.

Když mne stará matka zpívat/ Als die alte Mutter/ Songs My Mother Taught Me

When my old mother taught me to sing,

Strange that she often had tears in her eyes.

And now I also weep,

when I teach gipsy children to play and sing!

Anne Sofie von Otter again, in German

Joan Sutherland, in English (this is particularly entertaining because of Gerald Moore’s introduction)

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, in English

(There are a ton of recordings of this fourth song because it was the most famous and popular.)

The set is gorgeous and absolutely worth a listen or two, as it is not very long. I am having a lot of trouble finding good recordings of the entire set on YouTube, and would recommend Spotify for further listening.

Happy listening!

Visual Music: Part 3

“Dancing is music made visible.” 
― George Balanchine

I heard this quote recently and was immediately struck by it.  Of all the ways to make music a visual art, which is more obvious than this? The renowned choreographer, George Balanchine (1904-1983), naturally placed tremendous importance on his dancers and their dancing. But the music itself took precedence over all. He choreographed to show off the music, to give it new meaning, to make the audience think and wonder. The best way to experience this is not to read, but to watch. I’ve posted below a few videos of interviews and performance clips from the New York City Ballet. I hope you’ll seek more, and discover the ways Balanchine and other choreographers use dance to explore music!

 

The first video on this page is of an interview with a dancer performing a Balanchine work. She speaks to Balanchine’s skill at bringing the music to the forefront of his choreography, and the dancing in the video serves to prove her point.

http://www.nycballet.com/Dancers/Dancers-Bios/Megan-Fairchild.aspx

 

The first video on this page show interviews with three principals in a performance of Balanchine’s Jewels. Their insight is interesting, and the clips give you a flavor of each of the movements.

http://www.nycballet.com/Dancers/Dancers-Bios/Jenifer-Ringer.aspx

 

This video has an interview with the principal dancer for Balanchine’s Serenade, the first piece he choreographed. Tchaikovsky’s music is beautiful, and the choreography snippets made me want to see the piece live!

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBtzyRzk0UM

 

 Enjoy!

Visual Music: Part 2

ImageThere are so many amazing things to discuss about music, but so often conversation centers around the audial rather than the visual. The visual aspect of music creation is critical to consider, because we humans are such visual creatures. Connecting what we hear to what we see is an unconscious but vital act, and it undeniably adds interest. Consider Fantasia—famous works of music set to cartoons. Children (and adults!) are given something concrete to watch, and the musical stories become much easier to appreciate. Attempting to make a 5 year-old sit still for even half an hour while listening to a symphony on CD would be very difficult. But pop Fantasia in the DVD player? Now you have a captive audience.

And this is why it is sooooo incredibly important that classical music concerts continue. With audiences for classical music dwindling, symphonies and opera houses folding, and musician-mimicking technologies on the rise, it’s easy to see how live performance has become an endangered event. But aside from the purely aesthetic reasons for live acoustic music over canned, we cannot lose the visual connection to classical music. You cannot have the same experience at home listening to a beautiful choral work, that you can at a concert hall where you can see every face, watch every orchestra member, feel the music with the conductor’s motions. (And since it does always come back to sound, no system in the world can replicate the intensity—the most delicate pianissimo or the crushing wall of sound—of a live performance.)

Additionally, physical gesture in music is more easily interpreted if you are watching the artist move. And in the case of singers, the way we present ourselves overwhelmingly affects the way our performance is received. In fact, these issues of performance and the way it affects observers have been validated in this recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the full text of which is available here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/16/1221454110)

There are definitely downsides to this visual world in which we live, particularly in this era of High-Definition television and photoshopped fashion magazines. HD broadcasts, for example, are causing the industry to favor “attractive” people over beautiful music.  (They are also not the same as attending a live performance, though they can be a good substitute in a pinch.)

But as foolish as it is to rate music solely based on non-musical aspects, it is even sillier to try and ignore them altogether. Ideally, they exist in a happy medium where each adds to the other. So go to a concert—watch and listen—and recognize the beauty of theater inherent in live performance.

Visual Music: Part 1

When I think of “looking” at music, I usually picture notes on a piece of paper. But another fascinating way to experience music is through the actual representation of the sound waves. It’s been a while since I posted spectrogram analysis on here, so I thought I’d return to it a bit this week. I was fooling around with my Adobe Audition software recently, examining various “pop” songs, when I stumbled across a particularly cool-looking spectrogram of none other than Psy’s “Gangam Style.”

The actual patterns created by the electronic beats are pretty awesome, and that’s what initially drew me in. But as I kept looking and listening (and fooling around with functions that allow me to silence or single out frequency-ranges), I realized that the parts of the song where Psy is speaking look eerily similar to the sound patterns created by the electronic beats (just with more noise surrounding the outline of harmonics).

Spoken voice:

Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.57.41 PM

Electronic beat (shown alone here, but underlies most of the song):

Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.58.02 PM

This can’t be purely accidental, but it also is not totally natural (as I discovered by muting certain ranges). The sound is definitely manipulated, but it still sounds like a speaking voice, and not Auto-Tune.  My hypothesis is that the general acoustic pattern of: o-ppa gang-nam seu-ta-il (오빠 강남스타일) was used to create the contour of the background electronic beat. Maybe this is far-out, but it seems possible! Pitch is more important to the Korean language than to English (though it is not a fully-tonal language like Mandarin Chinese). At the very least, it’s interesting to think about, and brings a new level to the meaning of well-set text.

I wish I could post a video of this, so you could watch the whole thing, but since I haven’t been able to figure that out, here are several snapshots of the most interesting places:

Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.45.45 PM

Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 2.43.06 PM Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.53.15 PM Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.52.46 PM   Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.53.44 PM Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.53.34 PM

And of course, the music video itself: 

Listening to Modern Music

I want to jump back into blogging with a post about the challenges of modern music. Something that often comes up when talking about this music and how to approach it is why we find it so difficult to listen to. Since I am trying to provide ways to make this type of music more accessible, I find this to be a very interesting question, and one that merits some rumination.

Change is a scary thing; it can be good or bad, expected or unexpected, but it always represents a sort of unknown. Some people deal with change better than others, and there is always some backlash when a big, universal change occurs. Change in music has often been received poorly, and the veneration of great composers frequently takes place posthumously. It takes the populace a while to adjust; as the next big thing rolls in, they are busy still lauding the works of late composers.

I believe timbre (in the sense of soundprint) has a great deal to do with the way we approach and handle change in music. Classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries comes out of a long tradition, but the connections to the past are generally more difficult to draw. This was, in large part, intentional. Modern composers were reacting to, and against, the music of their forbearers in favor of new and experimental methods of dealing with sound.

Out went the luxuriating melodic lines and rich harmonic progressions. Instead, audiences came to face bizarre and random sounds, electronic manipulations, recorded noise, all purporting to be this thing we call music. And not only did this epic change come to pass, but each composer treated it differently. Some more experimental than others. Some playing with recorded sounds, others with electronics. Some pushing boundaries in entirely different directions, like minimalism or chance or mathematical formulas.

I think it’s these discrepancies that make dealing with modern music (both tonal and atonal) difficult. There is not so much a unifying aspect as a unified canon they are against. So amidst all this musical confusion, timbre can provide a way to listen outside of melody and harmony and those more “traditional” aspects from which composers are running.  Yes modern music is different, yes it can be confusing, but we do have the tools to listen!

Happy Halloween!!

In honoImager of this spooky holiday, I’m including links to “The Banshee” by Henry Cowell, and “Nacht” from Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg, two very famous pieces that incorporate extended technique. They are wonderfully creepy, particularly the video that goes along with the Schoenberg.

Some things to think about while listening:

What makes these, or any piece of music, creepy? What makes a sound “normal” or comforting, as opposed to scary? How do horror film composers capitalize on our evolutionary instincts (pertaining to sound) in order to frighten us?

Enjoy!

I’m back!

Sorry it has been such a crazy long time since I’ve posted with any sort of regularity! In the interim I’ve been rather busy—graduating from Indiana University, performing in a few summer programs, presenting a world premiere of a composition by a high school friend, and beginning my Masters studies at Eastman School of Music.  So it’s been a crazy few months!

I happy to announce that as a student at Eastman, I’ve been accepted into the Arts Leadership Certificate Program. In addition to performance, my career goals involve arts advocacy and finding new ways to bring the audience to my music (hence this blog). So I’m very excited about the classes and internships I’ll be able to participate in as a result of this program.

Just wanted to give a little update as to where I’ve been–I’ll return (for real) soon!