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.


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.


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!



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:

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.

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!

Appreciating Ives


I love Ives. I think his music is really cool and interesting to examine from a theoretical standpoint. But honestly, it can be extremely jarring upon first listen, especially if you don’t know what to listen for. I want everyone to be able to appreciate Ives’s music for its genius and originality, not just music scholars. So what can we tune in to that will help us make sense of his music, or *heaven forbid* allow us to enjoy it?

Brief Case Study: Central Park in the Dark (1906)

First of all, when I’m looking at a new piece of music, I find that background information helps me greatly to contextualize and understand it:

Charles Edward Ives lived from 1874-1954. He grew up in Connecticut and one of his biggest early influences in music was his father, a band director, who encouraged his musical and theoretical exploration and experimentation. This is highly apparent in his works, which are innovative and often difficult to understand tonally. Ives attended Yale University, an institution housing many of the prominent musicians and music educators of that time, where he studied composition. His work was not widely performed during his lifetime, particularly his early/mid-life, and his greatest fame and recognition was achieved (as it unfortunately was for many composers) posthumously. Ives is known for using manifold techniques including polytonality, atonality, layering, polyrhythm, and quotation.

Out of all the musical elements for which Ives is renown, I think that musical quotation is perhaps the most important for understanding and appreciating his works. It is, at least, the easiest to grasp, because Ives intended for his quotations to be recognized. If you hear something familiar when listening to a piece by Ives, Stop! Establish what it is that you’re hearing, and then hypothesize why or how he’s using it! This is one way that listening with timbre in mind can assist greatly with Ives, because he uses sound to comment on the associations we may have with preexisting material.

The next thing I look for is anything the composer may have written about the piece. If the music is programmatic, but you never read the program, it will be that much more difficult to understand and appreciate what the composer has done. Here is what Ives has to say about Central Park in the Dark:

The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness- interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond- of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days- of some ‘night owls’ from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March- the “occasional elevated,” a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance- of newsboys crying “uxtries”- of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall,” a street car and a street band join in the chorus- a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out,” the wayfarers shout- again the darkness is heard- an echo over the pond- and we walk home.

Something else to keep in mind when listening is how the composer (Ives) was intending for you to perceive the sounds. Upon first listen, this work can be extremely confusing and our ears may struggle to make sense of what we’re hearing. But realizing that Ives is trying to imitate an outdoor scene, where layers of unrelated sound occur over one another, can help us to adjust to his style.  Most of us don’t find it distressing to walk down the street and hear layer upon layer of disconnected sounds because our brain filters through the unimportant (like the bustle of city traffic), leaving us to focus on the interesting, critical, or unusual (like a sudden crash or the ice cream truck). In my opinion, Ives can be difficult to listen to because we are used to assigning equal importance to all sounds we hear in a concert setting. If we treat Ives’s music like that of a Romantic composer, we are expecting the different layers to complement each other rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically. Ives does not do that. To enjoy to a piece like Central Park in the Dark, we should allow our brains to function like we are simply taking a walk in the park. We can be conscious of many layers at once, but we don’t have to worry about how they all fit together. We should let our attention go where Ives takes us.

Hearing in Color

When musicians discuss timbre, they often do so using vocabulary that speaks to stimuli other than audial. Conductors will ask for a sound that’s “brighter,” “darker,” “warmer,” or “sweeter.” Teachers wonder if you can “color” a note, and coaches will suggest that a syllable or word could benefit from a “whiter” sound. We use these conflicting cues because we don’t have a good solid vocabulary for talking about sound. Hearing is nebulous for most of us; it’s something we do unconsciously right from birth.

But for some, hearing is also seeing. Or tasting. Or any combination of things. Synesthesia is a term meaning “union of the senses” and it refers to a condition in which a person has an atypical response to a stimulus. This can manifest itself in many ways. Someone can see colors and shapes when they hear a sound, or even experience taste sensations when they hear a certain musical note. Their numbers or days of the week might have certain “personalities,” or they may see colors and shapes when looking at alphanumeric letters.

I have a type of synesthesia where I associate certain colors with numbers and letters. For example, my numbers look something like this: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

It is as trippy for me to look at black type and try to imagine I’m seeing only black, as it probably is for a person without color synesthesia to imagine seeing an array of colors.

For purposes of looking at timbre, I find sound/color synesthesia to be the most interesting. This is the type where people see colors (and colored shapes) with certain sounds. There have been many composers throughout history with this type of synesthesia, and I think it is particularly fascinating to look at their music with this in mind, as if offers a unique look into the way someone else perceives the world.  One particularly fascinating instance of synesthesia that was actually incorporated into a composer’s work can be found in the symphonic tone-poem, Prometheus, by Alexander Scriabin.

Scriabin was a Russian composer who lived from 1875 to 1915, and who is believed to have had synesthesia. Envisioned as a “symphony of sound,” his work Prometheus was also intended to be a “symphony of color-rays,” though it was conceived long before lighting technology had developed well enough to accommodate this. His was a revolutionary idea at the time and in my opinion, a brilliant one. Something that has always fascinated me about composition is the idea that we can hear sounds that these extraordinary composers heard in their minds before they immortalized them on paper. With Scriabin’s “color symphony,” we can not only hear what he heard, but also see what he saw in his mind’s eye.

There are (for obvious reasons) not a lot of great videos on YouTube that showcase both the audio and visual aspects of this work, but I’ve included a recording that originated as a graduate project on this work and it’s performance. The actual piece starts around 9:43.  I encourage you to watch and see how the lighting affects your perception of the piece!

I think combining music and lighting in this way an amazing idea, and that colors absolutely enhance the way one can perceive a piece of music.  Even though we are not all synesthetes, we all experience some degree of sensory-connectivity just simply in order to make sense of our world (imagine your surprise if a small cricket hopped out of the grass and instead of chirping, bellowed!). Performing music with specific colored-light cues could offer a whole new perspective on the piece. And taking any piece of music and having someone create a color-scape for it would prove an interesting collaboration that might draw people into the world of classical music. We already describe music in visual terms; could we use color to enhance/explain complicated music? Would it draw people in, or make them more receptive?

The Complexities of Simple Music

Philip Glass has been a major composer on the American music scene for quite a while now. He’s written in a number of different genres from symphonies to operas to film scores. The work I’d like to explore in this post is from his film score for Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 collaboration with cinematographer Ron Fricke that juxtaposes slow motion and time-lapse videography of the natural world and civilization. The particular section in the work that I’d like to look at is entitled “The Grid,” and in the film, it plays over time-lapse footage of cities at night.
Glass’s music is perfect for discussing timbre because changes in timbre provide much of the the interest in his music. In fact, I find it easier to isolate particular sounds in minimalist music because my ear doesn’t have to worry about tracking the melody. This may also be why people find minimalist music repetitive and boring. It is repetitive, but the repetition in melodic and rhythmic material means we should be directing our attention elsewhere.

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 9.19.29 PM
Here’s my breakdown of the first couple minutes:
The first two seconds of this work are purely white-noise. The white noise continues through the rest of the piece, but this initial isolation forces us to focus on it. Because of the accompanying visual to this work, I find myself interpreting the white noise as traffic or the wind whistling in the city.
The next 43 seconds are dominated by horn-noises (I’m going to call them horns, though they could be electronically manipulated) playing F, then C, then D and G together. This use of perfect 4ths is very archetypal and evokes a somewhat primal feeling. At 0:45, we start to hear a horn faintly playing above other horn. This then becomes even stronger at 1:00, and at 1:28, the lower horn starts to repeat the interval of a major second, “embellishing” it’s “melody.”
At 1:57, trumpets come in with an iterative pattern that is quite jarring. Due to the traffic theme, I hear them as horns honking or car alarms sounding, and they bring an urgency to the work. The next minute continues with much the same sounds, and its specific combination of timbres and sonorities sounds rather jazzy.
At 2:56, the trumpets really step up their game and give us much more dissonance and brightness (we can see this on the spectrograph, which unfortunately only goes up to 3:24).
Throughout this entire section, the horns are still playing their two-note repeating ostinato. If you ever find yourself getting bored in this work (or others like it), I suggest tuning in to the number of instruments and varying sounds that you can hear. Were you still paying attention to the backdrop of white noise by the 30-second mark?
At 3:24, we start to get a bright, frantic triplet pattern. This corresponds perfectly to the visual of time-lapse traffic. In fact in many sections, the videography and music each amplify the other’s effect. For example, listen and watch from 4:03 to the end of the YouTube clip. Do the cars appear to be moving at different speeds based on the meter of the music? I have watched this section with and without sound and the difference is striking in what the music causes me to see!
In general, I hear this work as a commentary on modern existence. Glass captures the repetitiveness of daily life, particularly travel, and the futility of going and going and going but never really getting anywhere.
I tried not to look up very much information about this work prior to analyzing it because I wanted this post to be about what I was hearing, not what someone else thought I should be hearing. And there are a lot of aspects I didn’t touch on. So if you hear other things, awesome! Let me know what they are!
Also, if you’re enjoying this music, or you want to see really cool costuming and sets, Indiana University is putting on Glass’s opera, Akhnaten this weekend. It will be an incredible production and though I am not in it, a lot of my friends are. If you’re interested, you can live-stream the opera here Friday and Saturday (Feb 22, 23) at 8pm ET: