Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Art of Repetition

Music is sometimes defined as "organized sound", but you could make an argument that "music is the art of repetition" is as good a definition. In fact, I even have a book titled "The Fine Art of Repetition: Essays in the Philosophy of Music" by Peter Kivy. The title comes from the next-to-last essay in the book which talks about the fact that a great deal of music consists of repetition and the implications of this for aesthetic theories of music--which are considerable! I won't get into these philosophical aspects, at least not in this post, but I do want to look at some of the interesting things about repetition in music.

Repeats in music are indicated in scores by a double vertical line and two dots:

When the player sees this sign he or she repeats everything between the two sets of dots. If the repeat is from the very beginning, there will often only be the right-hand set of dots. The repeated section may be very short: a mere eight measures in the case of many minuets. Or it may be very long, 150 measures in the case of the repeat of the exposition in Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. It is often the case, especially with binary forms where both halves are indicated to be repeated, that performers omit the repeat of the second half. Sometimes they omit both repeats. How significant is this? Well, in the case of a particular Scarlatti sonata I am thinking of, K. 213, the difference between playing it with both repeats or with no repeats turns it from about a three minute piece:

Into one that might run to almost seven minutes:

And notice that we are not necessarily seeing much difference in tempo. The first pianist takes no repeats, while the second repeats both halves. It makes for quite a different piece as there is something fundamentally different about a three minute piece versus a nearly seven minute piece.

Nearly every one of the over five hundred keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti indicates that both halves are to be repeated. Just from a cursory glance at YouTube performances of K. 213, it looks as if 80% or more of the performances repeat the first, but not the second, half, for a duration of around five minutes.

We are often told that, when performing minuets with trios that when the minuet returns after the trio that it is to be played "without repeats". But I notice that orchestras often do all the repeats both times in Haydn symphonies, so maybe this "rule" is just one of those many lazy bits of folk "wisdom" that we pick up from our childhood music teachers without ever thinking about.

Repeats are very common in a great deal of music, as I said. Dance music is full of them because sometimes dancers need a lot of music and the easiest thing to do is just keep repeating. So dance music, even when found in a symphony, also has a lot of repeats. But not just dance music. The first movement of nearly all Classical symphonies has a repeated exposition and sometimes both parts are repeated, especially in the earlier symphonies. The same is true of piano sonatas, string quartets, trios and any other music using first movement sonata allegro form.

The polar opposite of this kind of music is the continuously developing kinds of music that we find in the later 19th century and for a lot of the 20th century. You could probably create a graph of the quantity of repetition in music that would build steadily through the 16th through 18th centuries, reaching a peak in the late 18th and early 19th century, and then dropping sharply with the later Romantic composers like Wagner and Mahler. It would reach a nadir with some of the music of Schoenberg and Webern where there is no exact repetition whatsoever. These composers attempted to balance the lack of repetition by devising intricate structures in which there is a kind of continuum of similarity by the use of fixed interval sets.

But this did not last a terribly long time and when repetition returned, it did so with a vengeance. The whole idea of "minimal" music is to have a lot, A LOT, of repetition. Here is an example from Steve Reich:

Another composer who is famous for his repetitions is Philip Glass. After browsing through the three CD set "The Essential Philip Glass" I had the distinct impression that for two or three decades he pretty much kept repeating the ascending minor third:

Don't believe me? Here's some examples. Ok, the first one is descending not ascending:

Ascending minor thirds:

In this one the minor thirds are mixed up a bit:

Ascending minor thirds:

Ascending minor thirds with a syncopated rhythm:

And now, in a major departure (heh!) minor thirds alternating irregularly with major thirds in the first movement of his Symphony No. 9:

And I haven't even mentioned Electronic Dance Music!

I think that aesthetically, repetition is extremely effective. A lot of repetition with just a bit of variation for spice is one of the most successful strategies in composition. The most common mistake a lot of young composers make is to wander aimlessly from one idea to another with little repetition to tie things together, just blundering on, one theme after another and all of them different, without anything to link them, blathering on and on and on...

Well, you get the idea. But if, on the other hand, you decide to use ascending minor thirds over and over and over in your music, decade after decade, well, you can do pretty well. Apparently...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

We have a winner! Answers to the quiz

You could find most of these just by Googling, but here are the questions:

  1. What is a "tam-tam"?
  2. How many strings on a mid-16th century lute?
  3. On Sylvius Leopold Weiss' lute?
  4. What is the order of instrumental solos on Archie Bell and the Drells' 1968 hit "Tighten Up"?
  5. What is "automatic double-tracking"?
  6. What does MIDI stand for?
  7. How many cents in a semitone?
  8. Who was Janáček's muse?
  9. What solo instrument did Chopin write for other than the piano?
  10. Who wrote the longest string quartet ever composed?
  1. A large, suspended gong.
  2. Eleven: five doubled courses and one single.
  3. The typical instrument would have 13 courses, all but one (or two) of which would be double, for a total of 25 strings. It was joked that a sixty-year-old Baroque lutenist had spent about twenty years tuning...
  4. Drums, bass, guitar, organ.
  5. A technique developed by the twenty-year-old engineer Ken Townsend to save time (around the time Revolver was being recorded). The Beatles had developed the technique of recording the lead vocal twice which gave it much more presence and intensity. This took up a lot of time so he developed a way of delaying the signal by microscopic amounts which gave the same final effect.
  6. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (According to Wikipedia: "is a technical standard that describes a protocoldigital interface and connectors and allows a wide variety of electronic musical instrumentscomputers and other related devices to connect and communicate with one another.")
  7. 100, duh!
  8. Kamila Stösslová, whom he met when she was 26 and married and he was 63 (and also married, but separated). She was the inspiration for the late life burst of creativity that produced most of the pieces that he is famous for.
  9. The cello.
  10. Morton Feldman, about six hours duration.
If you got ten out of ten, then you might be eligible for a tenured position as professor of musicology somewhere.

Congratulations to Robin, who got seven out of ten with these answers:

1. A tam-tam is a large orchestral gong
2. I am going to guess 6 courses for 15 strings for that time period
3. and by Weiss, maybe 13 courses, so 25 strings idea
5.we used to do this in analogue recording, a second voice added to the original via tape delay
6. MIDI is musical instrument digital interface
7. 100
8. Kamila . . . . . cannot remember her last name
9. Voice?
10. Feldman
Chopin did write for the voice, but the question specified "instrument" and the only instrument he wrote solos for, other than the piano, was the cello. Here is the Cello Sonata in G minor, op. 65:

Cutting Edge of Pop: Weird Al Yankovic

Yep, it's true, the biggest news in pop this week is Weird Al Yankovic's new releases.

And some classics:

Yes, well, as someone said on another blog, "Generally, if Weird Al Yankovic's parody of a song is better than the original song, the artist is doomed."

Yah hear that, Robin Thicke?


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Symphony Guide: Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"

This week's edition of the symphony guide over at the Guardian is on the Symphony No. 6 of Beethoven. As I have said before, Tom Service is doing us an excellent service with his year-long tour of the symphony. He has uncovered some pieces I was unfamiliar with (Myaskovsky?) and given us some charmingly overheated prose on a lot of the stalwarts of the repertoire. Today's essay is one of the latter. Possibly the most famous classical repertoire of all are the Beethoven symphonies and I suspect that Tom might be working up to end the whole series with the Ninth. For those of you keeping score at home, today's piece on the Sixth Symphony puts Beethoven solidly in second place after Mozart. Here are all the composers who have more than one symphony in the series so far:
Symphony Guide score by composer
Mozart: 38, 31, 29, 41
Beethoven: 5, 8, 6
Haydn: 6, 102, 
Sibelius 6, 7,
Bruckner 8, 6
Schubert, 8, 9
Mahler, 1, 6
I expect to see at least one more from Mozart, the Symphony No. 40, and, of course, the Symphony No. 9 from Beethoven and surely we will get a couple more from Haydn. I would expect to see one of Philip Glass' symphonies and at least one more by Shostakovich, so far represented only by his last, the Symphony No. 15. Surely Tom will cover at least the Symphonies Nos 5 and 7? But what about Allan Pettersson? Will we see one of his make it into the series? We have certainly seen far less formidable ones.

But on to today's essay. It is a pretty good one with a minimum of steamy cultural theory and a maximum of discussion of the music. One of the best essays in the series. Given the inherent limitations of mass-market journalism, Tom does as good a job as possible. Well, except in one respect. He presents a vision of music in which there is really no history. He says, for example:
I want to show how Beethoven creates a new kind of symphonic rhetoric in the Pastoral, a universe in which lulling repetition rather than teleological development is what defines the structure, on the small and large-scales, and in which the patterns, continuities, and disturbances of the natural world that Beethoven knew (above all in music’s most violent storm, up to this point of world history, in the Pastoral’s fourth movement!) are transmuted into the discourse of a five-movement symphony.
For Tom, every important symphonic work is "new", breaking the mold, going past the boundaries, baffling and astounding us. There are no predecessors. No symphonic work ever relates to other works in the genre. There are no influences. In his discussion of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony, he stresses how radically different it is from anyone, especially Beethoven. But there is so much in that symphony that reflects, in Schubert's own way, this symphony, Beethoven's Pastoral. Those lovely, long repeated motifs that Tom mentions echo again and again in the Schubert.

Another aspect that Tom does not discuss is that the Beethoven Pastoral is a particular kind of symphony, the sinfonia characteristica, of which there are many, many examples in the late 18th and early 19th century. I suppose that a journalist is the precise opposite of a historian. To a journalist everything is "news", even a two-hundred year old symphony. To a historian, everything is part of a web, a texture of events, all of which interrelate.

So no, in the Pastoral, Beethoven breaks no molds, just writes what is probably the finest sinfonia characteristica we could possibly have. Tom talks about the storm in the next-to-last movement as if it were the first time a composer ever tried to compose a storm. But not so. Haydn even wrote a cantata titled "The Storm" and there is some great storm music, even though it is titled "Le Cahos" ("Chaos") by Jean-Féry Rebel. Plus, several operas have storm effects. Here is Rebel's Chaos:

And of course, the last movement of Vivaldi's "Summer" concerto from The Four Seasons has a storm as well:

And finally, here is the complete Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven with its storm (which comes just before the final movement):

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Beef and a Quiz

NewMusicBox has an essay up titled "The Dangers of Secondhand Music" that bemoans the ubiquitous presence of background music almost everywhere you go. That is certainly a beef I share! Yesterday I had lunch at a very fine restaurant in a very high-class hotel. The menu was original and creative and the preparation and presentation outstanding. The service was courteous and attentive. Everything was excellent. With one exception: there was a constant thumping, very bad, background music--just a bit too loud to be really in the background making it impossible to ignore. What was so bad about this music was its industrial quality. There were no vocals, it was just instrumental tracks that were vaguely like Electronic Dance Music, but without any trace of creativity. I would much have preferred regurgitated 60s hits! They brought a little comment form to the table, so I made sure to point out how horrible the music was. We will see if anyone takes note.

So that's the beef. Now the quiz. The Guardian has a quiz on the Beatles up on their site. Let's see how we do.

Well, I did pretty good with ten out of a possible thirteen correct. The average score is six. No fair looking anything up! I really had no idea what Stones song John and Paul sang backing vocals on, so I picked "I Wanna Be Your Man" because John and Paul wrote it and then gave it to the Stones to record. And I had no idea what song kept Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane from the number one spot. Anyway, a fairly fun quiz if you like that sort of thing.

I am tempted to do one of my quizes, but the last one so demoralized my readers that I'm afraid to! Maybe a really short one?

  1. What is a "tam-tam"?
  2. How many strings on a mid-16th century lute?
  3. On Sylvius Leopold Weiss' lute?
  4. What is the order of instrumental solos on Archie Bell and the Drells' 1968 hit "Tighten Up"?
  5. What is "automatic double-tracking"?
  6. What does MIDI stand for?
  7. How many cents in a semitone?
  8. Who was Janáček's muse?
  9. What solo instrument did Chopin write for other than the piano?
  10. Who wrote the longest string quartet ever composed?
Oh, darn, I think I came up with another really daunting one! All of these can be answered easily with Google, except maybe the last question, but it is really more fun to do without a search engine. Just like the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle. In pen.

Bonne chance!

And some music to end with, a suite for Baroque lute by Sylvius Leopold Weiss. And no the illustration is not of a Baroque lute (that's a Renaissance lute) so you can't answer the question by counting the pegs:

UPDATE: Anyone want to have a go at the quiz? Or should I just put up the answers?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Note on Pettersson, Symphony No. 6

Allan Pettersson (1911 - 1980)

I listened again to the Symphony No. 6 by Allan Pettersson last night and again I am struck by the depth and seriousness of this music. I don't have the score so I can't embark on a real study of it, but here, from the liner notes, is a bit of the opening:

Sorry for the fuzziness: the original was really tiny. As I was listening, a comparison came to mind. This piece reminds me of a great Japanese film trilogy, The Human Condition, directed by Masaki Kobayashi. There is great human suffering, but, perhaps more in the symphony than the films, this suffering is balanced by great beauty. The beginning is ominous and gloomy:

And the tension grows and grows:

Sadly, the third part does not seem to be on YouTube and it has some of the most beautiful music. But here is the fourth and last part, which also has some beautiful sections:

What came to mind as the symphony ended was the thought: there is always suffering and there is always beauty.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Child Prodigies

The Wall Street Journal has a brief article up about musical child podigies. I suspect this is a much more interesting topic than it might seem from the article. So let me just muse freely for a bit about what goes on in a musical mind. For lack of a better candidate, I will pick myself!

I have been fascinated with music since I was quite young, but in no sense was I ever a child prodigy. In fact, I seem to be the opposite, which we don't seem to have a word for. "Late bloomer," maybe? Like Janacek, if I am a composer worth his salt, it has only come to me at an advanced age. One interesting thing though, on the occasion of my first encounter with music notation, at age nine, I was fascinated by the fact that this fellow could sit down at the piano and play music from just looking at those dots and lines. So I went off into a corner and scribbled some down myself and then put it in front of the pianist and said "what does this sound like?" Pretty weird, I imagine, but that would be my op. 1.

My gift seems to be twofold: I have a sensitivity to music, though I am not an ear-training virtuoso, nor do I have perfect pitch. And music always seems to have a significance to me. I love good music and really hate bad music. I think in musical, well, not images, but again, we don't have a word for it. What sometimes happens with me is I catch myself humming a tune. Yesterday it was this one:

I have no idea why that came out all grey, sorry! Anyway, I found myself humming that tune. With a bit of thought I identified it as the chorus to the Ray Stevens tune "Everything is Beautiful". So I was in a good mood! That's what I mean by "I think in music". I had a professor in graduate school who said he did the same thing.

I am relentlessly curious about music. Why does Haydn always make me smile? How does he put together those tidy and expressive phrases? How does he manage those surprisingly dramatic harmonic effects? How does Beethoven achieve that transcendent loveliness with such simplicity? How does Shostakovich manage to grip the listener with such power from the very beginning? And so on. Just about every good piece of music makes me curious about how it works.

Incidentally, I think this might give us clues as to how to define bad music. Bad music is music that has a lot of unconsidered stuff. Repetition without the awareness of the effect of repetition. Repetition without a plan or direction. Regurgitation of typical textures and tropes. Essentially, music without imagination.

What compels me to compose is I have these experiences or feelings that seem to be musical in some way so I want to see if I can craft a piece of music that captures them. There is always something musical chugging away in some corner of my brain.

So, all things considered, I think I have a musical mind, that is, a mind that naturally thinks in musical channels. But that doesn't mean I have the ability to compose a good piece of music. Sadly, no. I think what is missing from all these accounts in the mass media about musical geniuses and prodigies, is the work that is involved. If a child shows remarkable affinity for music at an early age, and really, that is all it is, then with the proper instruction that child may grow up to be a fine musician or composer. This is what happened with Mozart. His father, his sole teacher, was a prominent violinist and teacher.

My problem is that, whatever affinity I may have, and I have some, it was not nurtured because there was no-one with whom I was in contact when I was young that was musically knowledgeable apart from my mother, who was an old-time fiddler with no general musical knowledge. I was well into my twenties before I met someone who had formidable musical knowledge.

Given some musical affinity or gift, the really crucial thing is that it be nurtured and disciplined. No-one, not even Mozart, achieved anything without a tremendous amount of work. It is the work that is important and that is what none of the articles ever really talks about.

Here is the training you need if you want to become a composer:

  • study of one or several musical instruments (Mozart was a virtuoso on both piano and violin--one of my problems is the only instrument I am really competent on is the guitar)
  • study of music theory which comprises basic harmony, modulation, phrase structure, counterpoint, motivic development, composition of themes and so on
  • study of the characteristics of the individual instruments and how they combine, this is often called "orchestration" but it applies to any composition whether it is for orchestra or not
  • study of the music of various periods (traditionally composition students only studied the immediately relevant music such as composition from Bach to the present, but nowadays the field is much larger--Steve Reich studied drumming in Ghana and Philip Glass studied classical Indian music)
  • perhaps I should amplify a bit on the last part: by "study" I mean close examination and analysis of the scores of things like Beethoven symphonies, and, indeed, the whole corpus of whatever you think the "canon" is
  • and the big question mark: whatever else might be necessary in order to stimulate the imagination: improvisation, listening to lots of different music, building weird instruments, working in an electronic music studio and all sorts of things I can't even imagine
But mostly, working on the piece until it sounds "right"!

I'm going to put up an interesting piece. I'm not sure if anyone has done close analysis of this music or if how it was put together has been figured out, but I find it pretty interesting partly because I have no idea how it works! This is the first part of Allan Pettersson's Symphony No. 8. It is about 21 minutes long and, as becomes more and more evident, the motif or cell E to F is very important.