Category Archives: Music

Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

You never turned around to see the frowns

On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you

You never understood that it ain’t no good

You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

You used to be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal

A few years ago at the Winnipeg Folk Festival I was struck when three of my favourite performers on three separate occasions remarked that the only reason they were on the road making music was because of Dylan and the impact he had made on them. To me this announced the clear influence Dylan continues to command in much of the music making world. Even more striking, however, was the fact that those three performers were quite different from each other (different nationalities, genders, and of course musical genres and styles) and none sounded particularly Dylanesque. This impressed me: in an almost singular way it seemed that Dylan inspired musicians and at the same time inspired them to become distinct artists themselves rather than imitators. Continue reading Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

16th century composers and individuality

I recently had a conversation with a very important scholar regarding the compositions of 16th century composers.

She was working towards new ways of categorizing and identifying 16th century composers. Previously, compositions were published primarily anonymously and in anthologies. With the invention of the printing press, so she claimed, composers began to publish works individually. And she claimed that each composer had a distinct style which could be easily identifiable, at least, by her.

I asked if the composers themselves described the distinct styles of one another. She said “only vaguely.” As in, composers during this time don’t really seem all that interested in naming their styles in contrast to others. This makes me think that individual expression is absolutely not apart of their world. It is apart of ours and we are forcing it upon theirs.

So, based on the readings of my other encounters with the composers of this time, I wondered whether this kind of analysis “defining distinct styles of expression” was a-historical. I didn’t want to push the issue, as the context hardly seemed to call for it.

Encounters like these convince me all the more that I need to do a doctorate in musicology to write a “history of expression in music.”

The Trouble with Normal

As Canada expands its military activity into Syria, I can’t help but conclude that Mr. Harper has not been performing his Canadian duty of listening to Bruce Cockburn. As was the case for Bruce more than 30 years ago, I can’t help but be astounded that the “logical” course to correcting a terrible situation is to continue on with actions that produced that situation in the first place. The logical course may preserve normality, but such normality really does only get worse.

Here are the lyrics. Continue reading The Trouble with Normal

Music as Language — structured thought without content

Recent discussion on this blog has prompted me to think about how much music really is like a language.

Language is constituted by syntax, grammar, structure, adjectives and so on; this seems to be basically all that language is. And music, too, has all of these things.

One can compose a sonata where one theme struggles against another. The result is often one where the initial theme is transformed a new. Beethoven’s music often exemplifies this idea. For instance, his fourth piano concerto, second movement. Occasionally, this dialectical movement between the demanding orchestra and the pleading, comforting words of the piano are believed to be Beethoven’s musical realization of Plato’s dialectical method, which Beethoven was probably reading at the time of this composition. In contrast to Plato, we have no content, we have no definition of Justice that must be tested against another. With Beethoven’s concerto, each theme is anonymous. What we do have is the fact that the piano is finally able to convince the orchestra to agree with its serene idea. One can easily make up a story to go along with it: the shepherd David comforting the raging king Saul with his harp. In any case, we don’t know. We only have the struggle. We do not know what the struggle is about. The explicit meaning escapes us.

So, music does not, however, have the same relatively fixed meaning that nouns have in language, one of its essential cores. Still, bits of pieces of music carry with them connotations derived from context. More generally, specific genres of music are associated with certain peoples or genres of art. Wagner’s late operas were composed in such a way that specific characters or themes received their own motif. These associations provided the listener with new ways of deciphering what was happening on stage. More broadly, Wagner’s music was also played during Nazi propaganda videos. As a consequence, his music is associated with anti-Semitism (which Wagner was. Ironically, Zizek claims that Wagner’s music actually epitomizes the wandering Jew).

One could easily imagine a musical composition that could carry this even further where a Wagnerian theme would struggle against a Jewish klezmer theme. The struggle would be easily recognizable as the Nazi’s struggling to wipe out the Jewish people.

But these examples with such obvious connotations are exceptions rather than the rule. The explicitness of these kinds of connotations are actually quite few and far between. Often, the connotations are rather subtle and are lost on those who have not spent many hours with the work. For instance, upon the first hearing of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, we don’t understand that the aria Mein Teuer Heiland is composed as a pastorale (Christ the shepherd), where the believer (bass soloist) asks the Christ nailed to the cross if he has redeemed the whole world. While the believer petitions Jesus, a choir sings a chorale with text of the realized eschatology of the church, nor does one immediately grasp that when the believer is asking if the world is redeemed, the word redeemed (Erlösung) wraps around the chorale’ affirmative answer in continuous sixteenth notes. Thus, Bach emphasizes the scope, steadfastness and persistence of this redemption. There are many other examples of this kind of work in this aria, and Bach’s work in general, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

The point I’m trying to make is that music contains the structure of language without much of the content. The content that does become associated with music is extremely unstable and often only understood by a few. One can use music to have a nuanced conversation in purely musical terms, about musical terms. But one cannot have a nuanced conversation that is not about music with music.

If language structures thought, then, what is structured thought without explicit content? Is it merely an invitation to fill the empty envelope of sound with whatever content one likes?

Ethical Music and Change

“Plato’s concern that changes in musical conventions threaten anarchy in society has been voiced repeatedly by those who resist change, and it echoes today among those lamenting current tastes in popular music” – A History of Western Music (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca)

So I sold my music history text book in my third year of undergrad; I needed some extra dough. But recently I’ve been wanting an intro text to music history to get some bearings on what the current understanding of the musical canon in history is. So I picked up a used text book for a very fine price. I’m loving it for both it’s simplicity and clarity as well as showing me where I can investigate further details that the text doesn’t have room for.

One interesting fact: “The earliest composer known to us by name is Enheduanna (fl. ca. 2300 B.C.E), an Akkadian high priestess at Ur, who composed hymns (songs to a god) to the moon god Nanna and moon goddess Inanna; their texts, but not their music, survive on cuneifrom tablets.” So that’s awesome. The first composer that we know by name is a woman. Pretty cool.

Back to the first quote. It’s false. The claim that certain kinds of music affect one’s character has indeed been used by many thinkers. However, the authors in the text imply that it is inherently a conservative claim. Luther, and later Mattheson, argued that if music had the power to move people in secular situations, the church should have no reservations in bringing that same music, albeit with different texts, into the liturgical worship of the church. Here, Luther and Mattheson are pushing for change not resisting it, as the textbook claims. Furthermore, there is an implicit suggestion that character and music have absolutely no correlation, which further implies that the culture and situation where the music itself arises is irrelevant. And this is simply not the case.

Textbooks try to be as clear cut as possible so that the reader can nuance their ideas in their later studies. Perhaps this is okay. But I don’t think it’s okay to present an idea as fact if it is opinion.

Context as Necessity

Often reading textbooks on Art History, philosophy, or even Music, a great deal of context is given. The work in question has to be situated. It comes from somewhere.

But I get the sense that when the climate of the times is described, the author implicitly suggests that the work wasn’t anything really special, or genius. One can easily trace its origins to the current ideas circulating.

When one presents a work like this, we cease to really see its transforming power. We cease to see it as a work of genius. And, I think, there are geniuses. When one reads a biography of the artist/philosopher in question, the transforming power of the work is almost always raised to a much higher degree because the work in question is seen in detail. When I look at it as one instance of one person’s work, as a sign of the times, I’m not really looking at the work as it was presented in its own context.

I can’t help hear Badiou’s voice in my head: an event is an ontological decision. One of his examples is the French Revolution. Once it is infinitely picked apart, no one can name it as unified event anymore, and if no one can name it as an evental site, it no longer holds any trans-formative power.

In sum, the way one views an artwork is a decision. I can decide to see Schoenberg as a consequence of the steady increase of the use of dissonance. Indeed, he seemed to say as much. But. One hundred years after Schoenberg, people often see his late work as the cut-off of what constitutes good classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, then it ends…). And I can also say: “Ya, he wasn’t so great. You can easily see where he comes from. Sooner or later someone would have done what he did.” Here, (bad?) historical context is used as a weapon against the naming of a revolutionary work.

Be wary of textbooks and biographies that use context. Tracking the influence of a work is a difficult business, even if it is within context. So, “Context”, then, can be used either for the discrediting of a revolutionary work, or it can be used to show just how revolutionary the work really is.

Dissonance in Music — Beautiful Tension

In 1728, Johann Heinichen published a treatise on composition and thorough bass titled Der General-Bass in der Composition. In this large, rather comprehensive book, he writes:

“Intervals are divided into consonances, or good sounds [Wohlklingende], and dissonances, or evil sounds [Ubelklingend]. The consonances are the 3rd, 5th , 6th and 8va, and the unison is also included. Consonances are deemed as such because when two tones are sounded at once both tones do not annoy [verdreißlich] the ears, but are pleasant. The dissonances are the 2nd. 4th, diminished 5th, 7th and 9th. Even though the dissonances constitute the most beautiful part of present-day/today’s music, they were nevertheless called evil sounding, because they seem to insult the ears with the first striking of the keys. Thus, they inevitably have to be made nice sounding and have to be resolved through certain artistic practices.”

Clearly, he is having a difficult time with the concept of what “dissonance” is. He says that they are Ubel sounding, “evil” or “nasty.” Yet, they also constitute the most beautiful part of music today; that is, when they are treated properly. In simpler terms, he is naming the tension that occurs when two contrasting sounds are put in dialogue with each other. Though it was written nearly three hundred years ago, this tension that he names is what often seems to make music most interesting. It becomes a theme among the great works.

Now, in 2014, I wonder what sort of new music can make use of the form of dissonance (two contrasting sounds are put in dialogue with each other) with a new style. My theorist friend, Christopher Antila, once told me that there are many different kinds of dissonances. For instance, he said, at the end of Shostakovitch’s fourth symphony a C major chord is held for almost two whole minutes. But, he says, because of the musical activity that precedes it is so dissonant without idiomatic 18th century treatment, the C major chord actually sounds “dissonant.” It feel unresolved, as if it needs to finish somewhere.

How can a major chord, that chord which most typically resolves dissonances, be, itself, dissonant? Context, I think, seems to be the answer. It is the resolution of dissonances that seem to be the most satisfying, not necessarily the dissonance, or consonance themselves. Again, this is what I think Heinichen is referring to. So, if it is not the particular intervals themselves, in themselves, that define what “dissonance” is, then tension can be found with a host of new resources.

New resources: such as organ and electronics. I recently gave the Canadian premiere of Morgan’s “Adam’s Fall” for organ and electronics. Mogan has described the piece as “a fixed electronics track comprising of five repetitions of a set of six chords (taken from the closing cadence of Bach’s harmonization of the chorale Durch Adam’s Fall) [which] is played while the organist improvises from a pitch-set derived from those chords. Each recorded statement is fractionally flattened and sharpened in alternation in a converging pattern, creating a dialogue between the absolute pitch of the organ and the variable pitch of the electronics.”  Consequently, the (pre-recorded) chorale sounds more dissonant at, say, 4:42, or 6:09, than its first appearance. These sounds seem to writhe in agony, and yet there is something deeply satisfying about hearing this discomfort in contrast to the pitch set of the organ, which is in tune.

Or, to take a very simple example, look at  the THX quality sound intro.  It is so satisfying when it resolves towards the end.

In a similar vein, Giacinto Scelsi’s In Nomine Lucis employs half pulled organ stops in order to create strange dissonances and harmonics. Because the various organ stops used, the lack of air in each pipe creates a variety of dissonances. And by juxtaposing these dissonances in various ways, a new context is created; thus, some sounds become more dissonant than others. I find the result extremely terrifying yet beautifully satisfying.

What am I saying here? Something quite simple. I think that there is a lot of good music to be made using the tension that occurs between chords which are  “in tune” and chords which are “out of tune.” My idea is not radical. Tuning systems used to be exactly this: some chords sounded purer than others; thus, certain dissonances and consonances also had greater and lesser tensions depending on the context. You can read an introductory book about it here, or you can see a very basic demonstration on youtube, here.

In sum, interesting music seems to thrive on tension. Let’s expand upon tension that has not been exhausted. And let us look for new ways to create tension. Let us continue to make interesting music!

Sometimes it’s great to be a musician

Being a musician is a lot of work. It’s not just the hours of practicing that are difficult. It’s that when we practice, we are working towards something. The performance, which lasts just a few minutes, looms over every hour of practice. And one gets more and more anxious as the performance date approaches. I believe this to be good work. For many reasons. There is a joy in practicing for a performance and a joy in just practicing, for the fun of it. Most of this work, for me at least, is done in solitude. I like solitude. But most music is not possible without other musicians.

Tonight I was privileged enough to perform one of the most beautifully mournful pieces ever written: Klaglied, by Buxtehude. And it could not have been possible without three other VERY fine musicians. I have never heard them play, and sing, so beautifully. The piece was written after his father passed away and it’s prolonged, rolling, dissonances make it a piece that truly can transform the performance hall. To me, it seemed like the walls and the portraits felt heavier and were filled with sorrow, remembering the past suffering that they have bore witness too. And yet the music seems to lift these burdens as it calls them forth. And so, when I hear that there were tears in a few people’s eyes, it makes all these hours of rehearsals and practicing worth it.

Here is the translation of the first and last verses:

Must death then also break those chains

No earthly circumstance can unfetter?

Must it also wrest from me

The one who cleaves unto my heart?

Alas! a father’s mournful passing

Brings too bitter sorrow with it,

When from the breast the heart is torn

The pain exceeds the throes of death.

Sleep in peace, beloved one,

Live in peace, O blessed soul;

I, your son, now deep in grief,

Inscribe upon your hollow grave:

‘Here lies one whose gifts of music

Once gave joy to God Himself;

Now his spirit, full of gladness

Has joined the heavenly choir above’.

Finish your work

“A creative artist works on his next composition because he was not satisfied with his previous one” – Shostakovich

I also take this to mean that a creative artist finishes his current composition in order to start a new one.

Finish your work. People often say that they have a lot of unfinished projects. I think that this is often the case because they are afraid that it will not live up to their high standards. Well, finishing the work is often the hardest part. In order to finish a great work, you must learn how to finish a great work.

Furthermore, finishing a work and seeing it in written form is one of the greatest ways to learn. When you see your work in front of you, you can also see the errors, as well as the great things. You are able to think new thoughts that you were not able to do so before it because you no longer have to have it memorized, you no longer have to develop memorized thoughts from memorized thoughts, but can develop new thoughts and ideas from those already written down.

Three Improvised Meditations for the Baptism of our Lord

Here is another live recording from my Adam’s Fall concert.

Meditation one: Christ our Lord Came to the River Jordan

Mediation two: The River Jordan

Meditation three: The Voice of the Lord, Psalm 19
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD,
over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

Casavant Organ at All Saints Church, Winnipeg. Recording from the concert, Adam’s Fall which featured the Canadian premiere of Huw Morgan’s piece for organ and electronics called “Adam’s Fall”

Organ — Casavant, Opus 2508, 1959