Monday, August 29, 2016

Whooping it up, millennial style

Thanks to a commentator who tipped me off to this piece of musicology from the folks over at Slate: The Millennial Whoop: The Simple Melodic Sequence That’s Showing Up All Over Contemporary Pop. Sure, we've all heard it, but it's nice when someone points out what is going on. There is a rash of pop artists using the same wa-oh-wa-oh melodic hook. The interval is a descending minor third from the fifth to the third of a major chord. A good example is Katy Perry's "California Gurls" where we hear it first at the 52-53 second mark before it is restated in the chorus at the 1:05-1:09 mark.

(For some reason, Blogger won't embed the original video, but if you follow the link above, you can watch it there.)

The article explains why this pattern is so popular:
Humans crave patterns. The reason pop music is successful to begin with is because almost every song is immediately familiar before you get more than 10 seconds into a first listen. Between the formula of European classical scales and chord progressions that have gelled over hundreds of years and the driving heartbeat rhythms that stimulate our internal organs at the right decibels, listeners are immediately hooked in by familiar structure and themes that have likely been ringing in their ears since they were in the womb. And with the pervasive nature of pop music, where everything is a remix, a feedback loop has been created in which songs are successful because they are familiar, so in order to be successful, songs are created that play on our sense of familiarity.
So it is that the Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.
The minor third is perhaps the most fundamental musical interval of all. We find it everywhere. Listen to a mother calling out for her wayward son to come home for dinner. It is likely that the interval is a descending minor third: "John-ny! John-ny!" The blues song "Spoonful" as performed by Cream is about as saturated with the minor third as you can get:

Unless you are listening to Philip Glass, where we find it permeating a lot of his output:

With a few major thirds, for variety!

Food on a Sunday Afternoon

I see that I have never had a "food" tag before. I guess the only time I have talked about food on the blog was when I was visiting Madrid. But a lot of musicians are secret foodies, myself included. Yesterday I roasted a chicken, which I often do on a Sunday afternoon. I have been trying some new recipes lately, but the one yesterday really came out great:

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Roast chicken is really a very simple thing to make and it is an excellent accompaniment to a good wine. It was a warm day, so instead of opening a red, which I would usually do, I opened this:

I am not the biggest fan of Italian whites, which seem to lack flavor when vinfied bone dry, but I've always liked Orvieto, especially the slightly off-dry version called Orvieto Abbocato. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it for sale for quite a while. But this was quite nice.

Back to the recipe. A long time ago I roasted a chicken stuffed with garlic and it turned out great. This recipe calls for both lemon and garlic. It's really easy. Just take a whole chicken, rinse it off and dry it thoroughly inside and out. Salt and pepper the interior. Stuff it with a lemon, quartered and two heads (not cloves, heads!) of garlic cut crosswise so as to expose all the cloves. Tie the legs up. Put it in a roasting pan surrounded by cut up carrots, small potatoes cut in half and onions. Melt five tablespoons of butter and brush the bird all over. Pour the rest of the butter over the vegetables and bird. Salt and pepper everything. Then roast it in a 400-425 oven for between an hour and an hour and a half. A few months ago a friend gave me a meat thermometer and I don't know how I got along without one! After about an hour, test the chicken by inserting the pointy end deep in between the thigh and the breast. When it reads 165º, the chicken is done. All those other methods are inaccurate and too subjective.

After it is done, remove from the oven and put the chicken on a cutting board. Allow it to rest for fifteen minutes. While it is resting, put the roasting pan with the vegetables back in the oven for fifteen minutes to finish them. That's it. Carve the bird and serve with the vegetables and a good wine. This will go with absolutely any wine and vice versa.

  • aged Pauillac
  • Riesling
  • Chardonnay
  • Malbec from Argentina
  • Rioja
  • Ribera del Duero
  • any of the fine premium wines from Torres like Celeste, which is from the Ribera del Duero
You name it! But please, nothing in a box!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chamber Festival Concert

I attended the last concert of the chamber music festival last night--this is the 38th year it has been presented! This concert was the Shanghai Quartet (who are, oddly enough, based in New Jersey) and they played two pieces: the Mendelssohn F minor quartet and the Beethoven Quartet in A minor, op. 132. My violinist friend attended the concert the night before and was raving about how good their Haydn op. 20 no. 4 was. Wish I had gone! Anyway, I won't give a review of the concert, I just want to say that their playing of the slow movement (Molto adagio; Andante) of the Beethoven was as good as I have ever heard. This may be the best slow movement ever written and I say that having heard a lot of slow movements. We in the biz call this movement the "heiliger dankgesang" movement from the beginning of the lengthy title Beethoven places on it: "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart." And yes, it is in the Lydian mode, about the only piece I can think of!

So, let's just listen to the whole quartet. You will thank me later. This is the Alban Berg Quartet. If you just want to listen to the Heiliger Dankgesang, it is at the 17:45 mark. If you go to YouTube there is even a link you can click on. But you really need to listen to the whole piece. Then, if you wish, you may go back and just listen to the slow movement. You're welcome.

The Sensitive Female Chord Progression

Don't blame me, I didn't name it! had an article about something they called the "sensitive female chord progression": Striking a Chord. Here is how they describe it:
...what is the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, exactly? It's simple enough for the music theory-inclined: vi-IV-I-V. No good? Well, for a song in the key of A minor, it would be Am-F-C-G. Still confused? Here's an easy way to see if a song uses the chord progression: Just sing Osborne's lyrics, "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?" over the suspect four chords. If it fits, you've just spotted one in the wild. Once you're attuned to it, you'll hear it everywhere.
I have the feeling that the writer called up a musical friend to get the technical vocabulary--he almost got it right! The vi-IV-I-V is good, and that does stand for A minor, F major, G major and C major, but that's in the key of C major, not A minor. Here is how that looks and sounds:


Later in the article they quote one music teacher's take on it:
Jack Perricone, chair of Berklee College's songwriting department, thinks the mixture of chords gives the progression emotional heft. "It starts on a sense of maybe disquiet," he says. "In a sense, it's three-quarters major and one-quarter, but a very important quarter, being minor.
"And I think that has to do with credibility, what people experience in life. . . . I mean, that's not a bad mixture, one-quarter sadness or darkness and three-quarters light."
Now I'm imagining myself on the hiring panel at Berklee and we are interviewing candidates for the theory position. I ask every candidate "do minor chords mean sadness and major chords happiness?" And if they say yes, I say "next!" One thing is clear: the four-chord progression, whether it is this one or a similar one, is pretty much a cliché, which tends to support my belief that much popular music is industrialized formulas for evoking conventional emotional reactions.

If you want to be creative, try some three-chord progressions like I-VII-IV-I. That's the progression for the long coda to "Hey Jude":


Happy, sad? You got me, though the mood is more ecstatic than depressed. My theory is that music isn't really an expression of ordinary everyday emotions, but rather musical moods. Music is an "aesthetic object" not the acoustic equivalent of a pep squad or a therapy session. Here is another three-chord progression and I won't do a simple piano version because it wouldn't sound very good. The progression is VII-i-VII-VI or G major, A minor, G major, F major. As you have already guessed, that is the whole harmonic content of the song "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan:

That is, I believe, the original version from the album John Wesley Harding, but just the instrumental backing tracks. Dylan's people are pretty good at keeping his songs off YouTube. Anyway, happy? Sad? One third sad? Again, you got me. That song has a very particular and unique mood that I don't have any words for: driving forward with a certain amount of distance?

What all these progressions have in common is the avoidance of any clear cadential progression from V to I. That is pretty much what any of us do these days when writing tonal music. Perhaps we should call what we do "vague tonal music blended with modal music for extra vagueness."

Let's end with that great television performance of "Hey Jude" that is preceded by a little clip showing the Beatles could have been a pretty good tearoom gig band if they had wanted to:

UPDATE: There is a bit of a problem I neglected to mention. With a lot of these pop chord progressions, the tonality is rather ambiguous. For example, in the Dylan song, you could think of it as being in A minor and that is how it is usually conceived, but in the absence of any cadence a theorist might want to say that the tonality is not confirmed. Certainly if it were a piece from the Classical Era. You can't tell from the key signature, because since these songs are fundamentally the performances of them, the score has no authenticity other than being a transcription of a performance. I suppose that we tilt towards A minor rather than, say, G major, because the F major chord means we can't use F#s. In any case, we hear A minor as the tonic chord even without an actual cadence. I've been talking about A minor as that is always how I envisioned the song. But Bob Dylan actually plays it in C# minor with a capo so that the chord fingerings look like A minor. And Jimi Hendrix plays it with the guitar tuned down a semi-tone so that it comes out in C minor, but he plays it without a capo.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Terraces of San Miguel

The focus of the blog is, of course, music, but occasionally I get the urge to wander off the plantation. One blog I enjoy from time to time is that of Ann Althouse, who has an interesting and quirky take on a lot of things. One way she livens up her blog is to put up the occasional post of photos she has taken. I think I might start doing this as well. Just for fun.

Let's kick off with some photos I have taken from various roof terraces in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I live. As you can see, there are lots of good reasons to have a roof terrace in San Miguel, not the least of which is from some of them you can see six or seven 18th century churches.

San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, is in central Mexico at an altitude of 6400 feet. It is one of the so-called "Colonial Silver Cities", that is, one of the places founded by the Spanish and connected with silver mining. By the 18th century, Mexico was the world's leading producer of silver. The mines were not located in San Miguel itself, but in Guanajuato, the state capitol, and other towns including Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. San Miguel was just a stopping place for the caravans on their way from the silver mines to Mexico City. This was what preserved the city. As the silver mines production wound down, San Miguel came close to being a ghost town and in 1926 the federal government of Mexico declared it an historic monument. To this day, the central historic district preserves its colonial appearance. The Wikipedia article I linked above is a fairly extensive and accurate description of San Miguel.

But I just want to put up a few photos I have taken from various roof terraces over a number of years. San Miguel is a hilly place and, depending on where you are in town, you get completely different perspectives on the architecture. The feature that stands out wherever you are, are the colonial-era churches, of which there are seven large ones.

This is a photo I took years ago, early one morning. The city was wreathed in fog with the churches sticking out above. You can see three churches in this photo: from the left, the Inmaculada Concepcion Church, which is called "Las Monjas" (the nuns) as it is a nunnery, its bell tower, the San Francisco church and its bell tower and the neo-Gothic facade of the Parroquia church. In the middle is a hot air balloon!

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To show you what I mean about different perspectives, here is another shot of these same three churches, but this time taken from the northwest looking southeast instead of from the southwest looking northeast. From left to right are the San Francisco church, the Parroquia and Las Monjas:

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San Miguel's Parroquia, located on the central square, is one of the most-photographed churches in Mexico:

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The next photo was taken late one afternoon when the sun's rays were slanting under a layer of cloud, giving quite an interesting aura to the shot. It just shows part of the terrace, some Mediterranean cyprus and a charming cupola of a neighboring house constructed with glass bricks.

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This one was taken from my terrace and shows a jacaranda tree in full bloom:

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Here is a shot from another terrace of the moon, just becoming visible in the late afternoon/early evening:

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Taken at the same location and same time, this shot looks toward the city center where you can see those same churches again. This time the order, from left to right, is Las Monjas, the Parroquia and the San Francisco church. They always stick out, wherever you are, because they are so much higher than any of the other structures. In the immediate foreground you can see an elaborately carved limestone bench, part of the terrace.

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It's not all churches, of course, here is a shot I took last winter of los Picachos, the range of hills lying to the south of town. That white stuff you see is actual snow! Yes, because of the altitude it is, barely, possible to have snow here. It occurs about every thirty years and lasts a few hours. Just on the hills, of course!

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Let's have one last shot. This one is from my terrace again, with that jacaranda tree, but this time it is early in the morning and that hot air balloon is out again:

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I hope you have enjoyed this little photo essay from the terraces of San Miguel! Please comment if you did. Or if you didn't!

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Music Salon Mission Statement

After putting up that post about Alarm Will Sound, I started thinking that perhaps the Music Salon needs a mission statement. So here goes:

We here (that's the blogging "we") at the Music Salon regard it as our ongoing mission to boldly go... No, wait, that's not it! Ok, to observe the fortunes of classical music as it struggles to survive in the harsh environment of the 21st century. Also, to praise the fine work of great performers and composers. To do some educational outreach from time to time. To do overviews of the repertoire. To appreciate popular music when that is possible and satirize it unmercifully when it is not. To expose hypocrisy now and then. One ongoing project is to uncover the shameful tactics and agendas of the "new" musicology and to point out how many so-called "friends" of classical music are in reality its worst enemies. To have fun, whenever feasible. To engage in entertaining debates with readers. But mostly to boldly go...

Music and the Numbers

We were just talking about music as a business and coincidentally a friend sent me this link: Pop Singer Taylor Swift Gives $50,000 to Seattle Symphony. I saw this a few days ago, but it didn't strike me as blogable. But in conjunction with my last post, there might be something to note. I was saying before that classical music has always needed the support of an enlightened minority because it has never been feasible as a business. So three cheers to Taylor Swift for her contribution. If every pop diva contributed...

But let's put this in context. Taylor Swift's 2016 earnings, according to Forbes, are $170,000,000 USD. $50,000 is a little less than 3/100ths of a percent of her income. If I were to give a proportional amount of my modest income it would be, let me do the math here,  $15! What the numbers tell us is that the very wealthy only need to contribute a small amount of their resources in order to give healthy support to classical music. The question we should be asking is what would encourage them to make these modest contributions?