Saturday, January 30, 2010

Igor Stravinsky

I recently wrote a paper on Igor Stravinsky for a class, and until doing the bit of research this paper required, I was familiar with Stravinsky's major works (mostly his ballets), but hadn't fully appreciated just how controversial he was in his day. He was like Cage, in a way; willing to try anything and everything out. He dabbled in neoclassicism and modernism, experimented with different methods of composition, accused his contemporaries of being "wrong," and then proceeded to change his mind. Finally, he concluded that his music should be about the music, rather than about an arbitrary narrative or agenda assigned to it. Then again, he would also go on to compose circus music for Ringling Bros., but a guy's got to eat, right?

I wonder if he and Cage ever had the opportunity to meet...

... and what Cage would have thought of Coco Chanel...

It's a Clarinet! No, it's a Saxophone! No, it's a...

It's pronounced "zah FOON." And what is it? Well, it's a bamboo sax that was invented over two decades ago over in Maui, Hawaii. A cross somewhere between a saxophone and a clarinet (though I think it looks more like its mom, myself) it's a bit like a fancy travel-sized hybrid of the two. What used to be a job for a whistle, the xaphoon can be taken anywhere and played any time the mood strikes (note: "any time" doesn't mean that there are not times that are not so appropriate -that is, musicians should use their discretion) and it sounds so much fancier than a whistle. It uses a tenor sax reed and has a chromatic range of two octaves, allowing it to have a more sophisticated sound than other simple instruments of the same size. Woha! Move over harmonica! This little guy is sure to be the instrument of choice among vagabonds, hobos, outlaws and men who get paid to lead the mice out of town.

It's now being marketed as a "Pocket Sax," in fact and I hear that many people are growing more and more fond of it. There are apparently three xaphoon-only instrumental CDs out there and Paul Simon, it's said, used the instrument prominently in his 2006 U.S. tour.

Personally, I think it's cute. And it comes in fun colors (red, green, blue, and probably pink), so what's not to love?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

I've got two words for you: bubble organ. Yeah. Pretty awesome, right? And apart from just sounding cool, this thing is real. An arguably "musical" instrument, the bubble organ was built by Aaron Wendel as an attempt to explore the sounds of bubbling inside of tubes and how this sound could be control ed for the purposes of musical composition. Built from pieces of old furniture, wood and rain collected from the alleys and dumpsters around his apartment, Aron's bubble organ is truly a 100% recycled machine- but that's not all!

Beginning with two balloons attached to either end of a pipe that runs below the keyboard, the bubble organ is controlled by small plastic tubes that attach to this pipe, running through the keys that were created out of clothespins and Popsicle sticks. These keys pinch down on a piece of heat shrink tubing, essentially controlling the flow of each tube. The tubes running from the keys lead to a pool of water at the bottom of the box. On top of the plastic tube system inside the box rest PVC pipes covered by gutters, cut to resonate a specific pitch. When depressed, the air flow is allowed to move from the balloons through the tubes, bubbling inside the PVC pipe corresponding to the keys played.

Supercool instrument, right? Reminds me of Cage's Water Walk, where musicians blew air into water through straws to get that bubbling noise -only this bubble organ is admittedly much more elaborate. And probably more fun.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Soundworlds Conversations

I just discovered a fascinating article chronicling the efforts of two avant-garde composer/improvisors to find ways of interacting creatively with the soundscapes of remote areas of Scotland. The idea was to have the musicians improvise in response to various specific sound environments found within these areas. This is a project that no doubt would have fascinated Cage, as it combines the practice of free improvisation with a Cagean openness to "letting sounds be themselves." One of the musicians featured in the article, renowned English saxophonist John Butcher, may visit us at Thomas More next fall. Please stay tuned to this frequency for more information on upcoming Thomas More experimental music events. See John Butcher's website for more information on his work.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Music and Lyrics

I was thinking the other day about how the relationship between music and lyrics can be likened to the relationship between music and dance. Just as Cage and Cunningham held that dance and music could coexist independently of one another, so, too can music and lyrics. The separation of music and words is perhaps a bit more easy to swallow than the separation of music and dance, seeing as they're both sonic phenomena and certainly evolved independently of one another. So, this is no new and radical thought, but I got to thinking about how, as accompaniment to music, lyrics, like dance, seem to run on a spectrum with regards to their dependency on that music.

Some lyrics can stand alone and not seem to be missing anything at all. That is to say, with music they are lyrics, and without music, they become poetry or prose. Other lyrics, however, seem to be completely dependant upon musical accompaniment, sounding a bit absurd outside a musical context. These are likely the songs that one might try to sing to oneself, but find difficult because there's so much missing without the music present -or songs one sings anyway and no one else can decipher what it's actually supposed to sound like. Much like tap dance, there are lyrics that are sung with the music, outside the music, around the music, and in and out of the notes. And then, there are words that aren't sung so much for their content -unlike the aforementioned poetry- but for their own musical qualities.

It really is wonderful just how multifaceted words can be.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lost in Translation

Remember that game you probably played when you were a kid called telephone? Maybe you called it something else, but the basic premise was to sit in a circle (or square, or oblong shape, -whatever your geometric preference) and one person would begin by whispering a phrase into the ear of the person next to him. The message would be relayed in a similar manner until everyone in the group had received it and passed it on and it got back to the person who sent it. What generally occurred -and what made the game any fun at all- was that the message would have been misheard and/or paraphrased and/or misinterpreted and re summarized, so that by the time it got back to the sender, it was drastically changed from its original form. This type of message metamorphosis occurs outside of parlor games as well - we all know how stories, once told and retold and retold, tend to become fantastic caricatures of their former selves.

With the widespread conversion of music to digital form, this same phenomenon is happening to our favorite songs; that is, in going from vinyl, to CD, to itunes, some might argue that certain works have lost their integrity, or at least been changed enough from their original form for people to take notice. The process of digital compression is one factor in this change. Digital compression allows a song to go from being a very big sound file in its natural state to a very small file in your iPod — so you can carry your entire record library in your pocket. The challenge is to maintain the quality of a CD (or record), but to stuff it into a much smaller space, and here's where your calculus comes in. You start out with a very smooth sound wave to be stored in digital form. You want to reproduce a smooth curve with square blocks, which are the digital numbers (your 0s and1s). The only way you can make square blocks look like a smooth curve is by using lots and lots and lots of very, very, very small blocks so it ends up looking as if it's smooth. Using all of these blocks means lots of storage, so practically speaking, you end up using fewer, bigger blocks- which means you end up not representing that curve very smoothly at all.

Confusing, I know. Go back and read that again if you must. You'll get it. I promise.

The difference between the smooth curve and the rough edges you end up with in the digital recording, you can think of as "noise" because it's perceived as noise. It's heard as an error, something that wasn't there in the original recording. The trick is to take the noise — which is the loss of fidelity — and just make it so you can't hear it anymore. It's kind of like having a conversation in a quiet room, versus a conversation on a loud and noisy street. You're going to miss a few words as you chat by the busy intersection.

Okay, so there are technical barriers to overcome. That can be understood, but digital compression isn't the only culprit behind the change. One must also consider what has come to be called the "loudness wars." Basically, modern engineers tweak original recordings, editing so that it "jumps out" at you. This is nothing new. It actually goes all the way back to vinyl disk cutting, when one producer after another just wanted to have his 45 sound louder than the next guy's. This is still a motivation for some producers. If their record jumps out of your iPod compared with the song that preceded it, then they've accomplished their goal, and so in the process of this editing, quiet sounds become louder and louder sounds softer, and you can see where a song's integrity might be changed.

For example, the release of Metallica's album, Death Magnetic, last year caused quite a stir because it came out simultaneously to fans as a version on Guitar Hero. The Guitar Hero version apparently doesn't have all the digital domain compression that the CD has. So players of the game were able to hear what it could have been before this compression. The result was that 10,000 or more fans signed an online petition to get the band to remix the record.
I don't think that these "remastered" versions of music are necessarily bad, but they shouldn't be synonymous with the original works. There's danger in losing the originals if we accept reworked digital forms of music as simply replacements. It'd be like "improving upon" the Mona Lisa. Yes it would be restored, maybe there are even things that could have been done better the first time around that are fixed... but is it still the Mona Lisa? Is a reproduction the same as an original work? Is a forgery -even an excellent one- worth the same to you as the original? Even if DaVinci were the one to make the changes, I think there are still some who would take issue- and, as seen with the Metallica album, there are at least 10,000.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Choral Kinks

I found out the other day that, back at the end of December, Ray Davies, frontman for The Kinks, had decided to pair some of the groups most popular songs from the 60s with a full choir. Now, I know that the instuments with which a piece is played can drastically change the way the piece is recieved, and this choir thing had me a little worried. But, turns out that much of the material Davies chose for his new choral album, comes from the group's 1968 record, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, which is composed of many simple songs with beautiful harmonies. All in all, it seems that the songs performed are well suited to a choral rendition... and that the New York City-based Dessoff Chamber Choir can do pretty well on little to no rehersal.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Why Beethoven is Wrong

It was oft discussed in FYS and continues to be referenced in conversation, but I do not think that it was ever written in this blog what Cage meant when he said that "Beethoven was wrong." And so I thought I'd take the time to explain this statement in context and to record here what was being said when Cage uttered these fightn' words.

In the 1930s, Cage had studied with the Austro-Hungarian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had settled in Los Angeles in 1933. It was during this time that Cage discovered his lack of aptitude for harmony and after two years of study, Schoenberg also saw this. Harmony, maintained Schoenberg, is an essential for writing music, an obstacle which Cage would always encounter if he continued to compose. If it were true that Cage had no feeling for harmony, as he so claimed, then, said Schoenberg, it would "become a wall through which [he] could not pass." In response to this, Cage recalled saying, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."

In his battle against harmony, Cage was not alone, finding two allies in the French composer Erik Satie and Anton Webern, a former student of Schoenberg's. It was after studying the works of these two men, Cage came to mount his attack on Beethoven. Cage reasoned that, in the field of structure, there has been only one new idea since Beethoven and this new idea was what Cage saw in the works of Satie and Webern. Beethoven defined the parts of a composition by means of harmony (already we see why Cage would develop a sort of vendetta with the man). In contrast, Satie and Webern define the parts of a composition by use of duration, time lengths. To this divergence in compositional relation of parts to the whole, Cage pose the question, who is right? He also provided an answer:

" I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence. which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music."

One wouldn't be alone in questioning whether such a statement were simply a way for Cage to get around the issue of his personal handicap with regards to harmony, but even if this were so, Cage uses logic to back up such an antagonizing statement. As he saw it, regarding music in terms of harmony left no room for silence. If one considers that silence is the opposite of sound, it is therefore, sound's essential partner. Sound is characterised by pitch, volume, timbre and duration. Silence, however, can be characterized by duration only and cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony, but only in terms of length. And, I mean, who can argue silence's necessity to music? We even write notes for rests.

All this considered, Cage was drawn to the conclusion that of the four fundamental characteristics of the material of music, duration was most important... and that Beethoven is wrong.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Poetry and Music

I read this today and decided it was too good to keep to myself. I would undoubtedly forget it eventually anyway. And so, here it is:

"All deep things are Song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song... The Greeks fabled of Sphere-Hamonies: it was the feeling they had of the inner structure of Nature; that the soul of all her voices and utterances was perfect music. Poetry, therefore, we will call musical Thought. The Poet is he who thinks in that manner... See deep enough and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it."
-- Thomas Carlyle ("The Hero as Poet")

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ringing (and honking and buzzing) in the New Year

Whoever it was who tapped into a niche market for what have come to be called "noise makers," must have been someone well-versed in the practices of good business. What is it that sets "noise makers" apart from any other maker of noise. Aren't there other gadgets that would suffice, toys that would serve the same purpose, objects perhaps even better suited to the job? The term "noise maker" would seem to apply to any object manufactured for the exclusive purpose of making noise. Umm, pardon me, but wouldn't any instrument apply? Or maybe this is a case of "all doves are pigeons, but not all pigeons are doves." Perhaps "noise maker" applies to instruments used for making noise, and not for making music, which explains why brass, strings and woodwinds are out, but doesn't explain why whiny two year olds don't merit the title...

Regardless, I think it's telling of our consumer society that we must go out and buy items specifically manufactured for "noise making" when most everyone has a perfectly good supply of pots and pans in the kitchen. And I can't help but wonder where that lucky dog who first told consumers that they needed special equipment for making chaotic and annoying noises is reclining now.