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.
One of the high points of my musical career was playing in a cover band in college called Harsh Mouse, and one of the high points of our repertoire was this song.
For his birthday, Milo got a book called Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan. We finally got around to showing it to him recently, and now he’s totally obsessed.
The book has buttons along the side which you can press to hear little audio samples. They include each orchestra instrument playing a short Beethoven riff. All of the string instruments play the same “bum-bum-bum-BUMMM” so you can compare the sounds easily. All the winds play a different little phrase, and the brass another. The book itself is fine and all, but the thing that really hooked Milo is triggering the riffs one after another, Ableton-style, and singing merrily along.
I’ve been transcribing a lot of beats for the MusEDLab‘s forthcoming music theory learning tool. Many of those beats require swing, and that has been giving me a headache. In trying to figure out why, I stumbled on a pretty interesting shift in America’s grooves over the past sixty or so years. To understand what I’m talking about, you first need to know what swing is. Here’s a piece of music that does not use swing:
Here’s a piece of music that uses a lot of swing:
I have a whole lot of explanatory writing about rhythm in the pipeline, and thought it would be good to have a place to link the word “syncopation” to every time it arises. So here we go. Syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to harmony. A syncopated rhythm has accents on unexpected beats. In Western classical music, syncopation is usually temporary and eventually “resolves” to simpler rhythms. In the music of the African diaspora, syncopation is a constant, in the same way that unresolved tritones are constant in the blues.
Syncopation is not just a subjective quality of music; you can mathematically define it. Before we do, it helps to visualization a measure of 4/4 time, the amount of time it takes to count “one, two, three, four.”
The more times you have to subdivide the measure to get to a given beat, the weaker that beat is. When you accent weak beats, you get syncopation. Continue reading
One of my Montclair State students recently did a class presentation on Venetian Snares, the stage name of highbrow electronica producer Aaron Funk.
The track uses samples from the first movement of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet, accompanied by shuffled slices of the Amen break. It sounds to me like an EDM artist trying to deal with “art” music. Eliot Britton wrote an art-musical scholarly response. Britton makes a good-faith effort to engage the track on its own terms, but he’s writing from within the classical academic tradition. That tradition can be a king-sized drag.
The climb from a popular musical style to acceptance as an elevated form of artistic expression is steep. The struggle to include jazz as legitimate art music took many years and the endeavour continues to this day. However, it is no longer acceptable for educated musicians to dismiss jazz as “dance music” because of its association with the dance hall. To dismiss jazz as an artistic musical form would be a rejection of a major element of North American music history.
Oh boy. Let’s unpack! Continue reading
Bennett, J. (2011). Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, (5), online.
My professional life at the moment mostly consists of teaching classical and jazz musicians how to write pop songs. While every American is intuitively familiar with the norms of pop music, few of us think about them explicitly, even trained musicians. It’s worth considering them, though. While individual pop songs might be musically uninteresting, in the aggregate they’re a rich source of information about the way our culture evolves. Bennett describes popular song as an “unsubsidized populist art form,” like Hollywood movies and video games. The marketplace exerts strong Darwinian pressures on songwriters and producers, polishing pop conventions like pebbles being tumbled in a river.
Here’s a bunch of concert footage, don’t deny yourself the joy of watching Monk play. And dance while other musicians play.
You hear musicians talk all the time about groove. You might wonder what they mean by that. A lot of musicians couldn’t explain exactly, beyond “the thing that makes music sound good.” The etymology of the term comes from vinyl records. Musicians ride the groove the way a phonograph needle physically rides the groove in the vinyl.
But what is groove, exactly? It isn’t just a matter of everyone playing with accurate rhythm. When a classical musician executes a passage flawlessly, you don’t usually talk about their groove. Meanwhile, it’s possible for loosely executed music to have a groove to it. Most of my musician friends talk about groove as a feeling, a vibe, an ineffable emotional quality, and they’re right. But groove is something tangible, too, and even quantifiable.
Using digital audio production software, you can learn to understand the most mystical aspects of music in concrete terms. I’ve written previously about how electronic music quantifies the elusive concept of swing. Music software can similarly help you understand the even more elusive concept of groove. In music software, “groove” means something specific and technical: the degree to which a rhythm deviates from the straight metronomic grid. Continue reading
In this post, I’ll be doing some public-facing note-taking on Music As Social Life: The Politics Of Participation by Thomas Turino. I’m especially interested in chapter two: Participatory and Presentational Performance. We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals, and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs. It’s useful to know that there are people in the world who take a different view.
Turino divides music into four big categories:
- Participatory music. Everyone present is actively doing something: playing an instrument, singing or chanting, and/or dancing. For example: a bluegrass jam, campfire singing, a hip-hop cypher.
- Presentational music. There’s a clear divide between the performers and the audience. Audience members might dance or sing along, but they are not the focus. For example: a classical, rock or jazz concert.
- High-fidelity recording. A document of a live performance (or a convincing illusion of such.) For example: a classical or jazz album.
- Studio sound art. A recording that was constructed in the studio using techniques other than (or in addition to) people performing in real time. For example: a late Beatles album, or any pop song since 1980.
Turino devotes a lot of his attention to three examples of participatory music cultures:
This last group might strike you as the odd one out. Turino sees more commonalities between the musical experience of American contra dancers and participants in Shona rituals than he does between the contra dancers and audiences at, say, a jazz concert.