Classical composers, Bowie and Björk

This post originally took the form of a couple of Twitter threads, which I’ve collected and edited here for easier reading.

Greg Sandow asks two very interesting and provocative questions of classical music:

When the Museum of Modern Art did its first retrospective of a seminal musical artist, no surprise it was Björk who reached past music into the larger cultural world. Some day, couldn’t somebody from classical music do that? When a major musical artist died and the New York Times did more than 20 stories tracing his influence on our culture and on people’s lives, well, of course it was David Bowie. Couldn’t it someday be someone from classical music?

My answer: Probably not.

Björk in 1993 by Jean-Baptiste Mondino David Bowie

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Frank Ocean – Pink and White

I’m working on a new music theory course with the good folks at Soundfly, a continuation of Theory For Producers. We were looking for contemporary songs that use modal interchange, combinations of different scales to create complex blends of emotion. Soundfly producer Marty Fowler suggested a Frank Ocean song, which I was immediately on board with.

Frank Ocean - Blond

Frank is one of the freshest musicians and songwriters out there–his song “Super Rich Kids” is one of my favorite recent tracks by anyone. For the course, Marty picked “Pink And White,” a simple tune with a deceptively complex harmonic structure.

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Chance the Rapper’s verse on “Ultralight Beam”

One of the best guest verses in the history of hip-hop is the one that Chance The Rapper does on Kanye West’s beautiful “Ultralight Beam.”

The song is built around an eight bar loop. (See this post for an analysis of the chord progression.) Chance’s verse goes through the loop five times, for a total of forty bars. It’s not at all typical for a rap song to include a one and a half minute guest verse–it’s almost enough material to make a whole separate song. By giving up so much space in his album opener, Kanye is gaving Chance the strongest endorsement possible, and Chance makes the most of his moment.

Chance The Rapper

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Freedom ’90

Since George Michael died, I’ve been enjoying all of his hits, but none of them more than this one. Listening to it now, it’s painfully obvious how much it’s about George Michael’s struggles with his sexual orientation. I wonder whether he was being deliberately coy in the lyrics, or if he just wasn’t yet fully in touch with his identity. Being gay in the eighties must have been a nightmare.

This is the funkiest song that George Michael ever wrote, which is saying something. Was he the funkiest white British guy in history? Quite possibly.  Continue reading

Cultural hegemony in music education

Music education in American colleges and universities focuses almost entirely on the traditions of Western European aristocrats during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known conventionally as “common practice music.” This focus implies that upper-class European-descended musical tastes are a fundamental truth rather than a set of arbitrary and contingent preferences, and that white cultural dominance is normative. In this paper, I discuss theoretical notions of pedagogical authority as a form of power. I then examine a music textbook catalog from a prestigious academic press in order to gain insight into the hegemonic culture of classical music, as well as the emerging challenges to that culture.

Biz

American musical culture is a riotous blend of styles and genres. However, there is a unifying core to nearly all of our popular music, and much “art” music as well: the loop-centric, improvisational, dance-oriented traditions of the African diaspora. Mcclary (2000) argues that the “various trickles” of the past hundred years of American music collect into “a mighty river” following a channel cut by the blues (32). Yet it is possible to complete a music degree at most American universities without ever coming into contact with the blues, or anything related to it. The music academy’s near-exclusive focus on Western classical tradition places it strikingly at odds with the broader culture. We need to ask what might be the ideological motivation for perpetuating the divide.

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QWERTYBeats design documentation

QWERTYBeats logoQWERTYBeats is a proposed accessible, beginner-friendly rhythm performance tool with a basic built-in sampler. By simply holding down different combinations of keys on a standard computer keyboard, users can play complex syncopations and polyrhythms. If the app is synced to the tempo of a DAW or other music playback system, the user can easily perform good-sounding rhythms over any song. 

This project is part of Design For The Real World, an NYU ITP course. We are collaborating with the BEAT Rockers, the Lavelle School for the Blind, and the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. Read some background research hereContinue reading

Artistic citizenship in the age of Trump

Public-facing note taking for Philosophy of Music Education with David Elliott

This week I’m reading about the social and ethical responsibilities of artists generally, and musicians and music educators in particular. That topic is especially relevant at the moment.  

Before we get to the moral philosophy aspect, let’s talk about this performance. Why is it so good? Movies and TV have run “Hallelujah” into the ground, but for good reason. The song blends joy and pain together as well as any song ever has.It’s right there in the first verse: “the minor fall, and the major lift.” It’s the same reason we love “Amazing Grace,” and the blues.

You can hear Kate McKinnon’s Leonard Cohen tribute as the concession speech Hillary Clinton would have made in a perfect world. This verse in particular gave me chills:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

You can also hear it as an expression of Kate McKinnon herself, a queer woman mourning the world of growing inclusiveness that she thought she was moving into, the one we all thought we were moving into. And you can hear Leonard Cohen’s bitter irony, too. SNL had Trump as its host just last year, and they’re as much to blame for normalizing him as anyone.

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