I have been very vocal in my criticism of contemporary classical music on this blog. But there is some new music out there that I do like, very much. Most of it falls under the minimalist category, made by Steve Reich and his followers. The coolest new thing I’ve heard in this idiom is “Timber” by Michael Gordon.
The piece is played by six people on wooden planks, using mallets and fingertips. I thought at first it was a conceptual thing — “look what we can do with ordinary lumber” — but in fact this is an actual instrument called a simantra, used by Eastern Orthodox monks and, later, Iannis Xenakis. You can take a look at part of the score.
So why do I consider this to be good? Continue reading
I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.
So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.
The word is from Greek, “poly” meaning many and “phony” meaning voice. This is as opposed to monophony — one voice. Originally, polyphony literally meant multiple people singing together. Over the course of musical history, the term has become more abstracted, referring to multiple “voices” played on any instrument. And usually, polyphony means that the different voices are all playing/singing independent lines.
Quora user Andrew Stein asks:
Musicians: How do you deal with playing songs that have very monotonous parts?
I’m going to use James Brown’s Sex Machine as an example. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. However, the rhythm guitar seems to be nothing but 2 chords played over and over and over with no variation (except for the bridge). What is it like to have to play songs like that? Even if you like the song, do you dread it, or do you just have fun as long as you are playing music? If you are bored, how do you deal with it? Does your mind wander while you play, or do you have to concentrate?
This is actually quite a profound question. It gets to the heart of the major conflict playing out in western music right now between linearity and circularity.
Computers have revolutionized the composition, production and recording of music. However, they have not yet revolutionized music education. While a great deal of educational software exists, it mostly follows traditional teaching paradigms, offering ear training, flash cards and the like. Meanwhile, nearly all popular music is produced in part or in whole with software, yet electronic music producers typically have little to no formal training with their tools. Somewhere between the ad-hoc learning methods of pop and dance producers and traditional music pedagogy lies a rich untapped vein of potential.
This paper will explore the problem of how software can best be designed to help novice musicians access their own musical imagination with a minimum of frustration. I will examine a variety of design paradigms and case studies. I will hope to discover software interface designs that present music in a visually intuitive way, that are discoverable, and that promote flow.
Susan McClary “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture.” in Audio Culture, Daniel Warner, ed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp 289 – 298.
This essay is the best piece of music writing I’ve read in quite a while. McClary articulates my personal ideology of music perfectly. Also, she quotes Prince!
Here are some long excerpts.
I’ve talked a lot of smack about high modernist music on this blog recently. Yesterday I got an email from a composer named Evan Kearney with some thoughtful reactions. Here’s what he had to say:
[Y]ou wrote that you didn’t ‘get’ High Modernism (serialism, Webern, Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, etc.) and what it offered for the average listener. I can tell you that their music had an immediate impact on me. It is unlike any tonal or post tonal music though. It hits me hard in a very startling way.
It is as if your soul is being bared to the harshness of reality and you can gain some sort of epiphany through the almost psychedelic nature of the atonal soundscape. Granted, I prefer pre-atonal composers like Bartok more than true serialists, but nonetheless, that is my way of appreciating it.
One more thing — interestingly, I have converted two of my friends, who, like myself (before I started getting in to jazz and classical about six years ago) were big “prog” rock, electronic music, and “progressive” hip-hop fans.
They still are, of course, and with the current influx of amazing music via the internet that will probably just increase. My point however, is that after a few reviews of modern classical, I have gotten them to genuinely enjoy it. And they both cite the same reasons for liking it as me — the pseudo-altered-state of mind, high-alert, thrill-ride-esque journey that goes with it.
So there you have it, folks, as articulate an explanation of this music and its attractions as you’re likely to find. You may also want to check out Evan’s own works on his SoundCloud page.
I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.
Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.
I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music, except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront it, listen to it, write about it and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind.
The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.
I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.
I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.
The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer's] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.
My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?
Update: one of the photos below currently appears on Mort’s Wikipedia page. Pretty cool.
The seminar I’ve been taking with Morton Subotnick is sadly drawing to a close. As part of the end of the semester, we were invited to Professor Subotnick’s home studio, a few blocks from NYU, to get a demonstration of the setup he uses in performances.