Right now I’m teaching music technology to a lot of classical musicians. I came up outside the classical pipeline, and am always surprised to be reminded how insulated these folks are from the rest of the culture. I was asked today for some electronic music recommendations by a guy who basically never listens to any of it, and I expect I’ll be asked that many more times in this job. So I put together this playlist. It’s not a complete, thorough, or representative sampling of anything; it mostly reflects my own tastes. In more or less chronological order:
Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice erawestern tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of western Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. However, tonal theory is inadequate to explain the blues and other musics of the African diaspora. Given the central role of this music in both popular culture and art music, music theory classes do their students a grave disservice by not discussing its harmonic content.
The blues cannot be explained by Western tonal theory. Nevertheless, the blues emerged in western culture and is now a central pillar of it. McClary (2001) observes that while twentieth-century music has no single main stream, it does have a “mighty river” that follows a channel cut the blues:
When LeRoi Jones published his powerful book Blues People in 1963, his title referred to the African American musicians who fashioned the blues out of their particular historical conditions and experiences. Yet a music scholar of a future time might well look back on the musical landscape of the 1900 s and label us all “blues people”: those who inhabited a period dominated by blues and its countless progeny (32-33).
It no longer makes sense to think of the blues, or any other music of the African diaspora, as non-Western. Therefore, Western music theory must grow to accommodate the blues, the same way that the music itself has.
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.
If you’re a guitarist, you may have noticed that it’s hard to get your instrument perfectly in tune. This is not your imagination. If you tune each string perfectly to the one next to it, the low E string will end up out of tune with the high E string. If you use an electronic tuner to make sure the individual strings are tuned to the correct pitch, they won’t sound fully in tune with each other. It has nothing to do with the quality of your instrument or your skill at tuning: it’s a fundamental fact of western music theory. This post attempts to explain why. It’s very geeky stuff, but if you like math (and who doesn’t?) then read on.
December is always a complex month for half-Jewish mutts like me. When pressured to self-identify, I usually just go with “Jewish” for the sake of simplicity, but this is in spite of not having being bar mitzvahed, not knowing any Hebrew, having only the vaguest idea what all the holidays and rituals mean, and having no relationship whatsoever with God.
My mom is Jewish, so that’s enough for the tribe to have welcomed me as one of their own, but it’s a complex question as to what that membership means. Wikipedia has two separate articles for Judaism and Jews, to distinguish the religion from the ethnicity, and I definitely belong to the ethnicity more than the religion.
My most significant personal connection to the tribe, aside from family Passover seders and Seinfeld appreciation, has come through music, specifically klezmer music. I may not know my way around the Torah, but I know my harmonic minor modes inside and out.
I was doing a frivolous Google search for the Simpsons episode where Bart, Nelson, Milhouse and Ralph form a boy band. They’re in the studio singing, and they sound terrible, until the producer pushes a huge button labeled “studio magic.” Then suddenly they sound like the Backstreet Boys. While I was digging through the Google results, I came across a book called Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music by Mark Katz. He references the Simpsons gag as an example of how recording technology has undermined our notions of authenticity in music. There are a couple of chapters of the book online, and it’s great stuff.
It’s hard for us now to imagine a time when recorded sound was a wondrous technological novelty.
Those gathered around the phonograph were experiencing music in ways unimaginable not so many years before. They were hearing performers they could not see and music they could not normally bring into their homes. They could listen to the same pieces over and again without change. And they ultimately decided what they were to hear, and when, where, and with whom.
I’ve now had a couple of opportunities to play around with an iPad, and to surreptitiously watch other people use it. I have strong and mixed feelings. The touchscreen interface is pretty wonderful and I have no doubt that it’s going to send the mouse the way of the floppy disk. But the walled garden aspect disturbs me. It smells a little Microsoft-y. As long Apple’s products are so delightful, I guess I don’t care that deeply what their business philosophy is. But not everything that Apple makes is equally delightful, and gorgeous though it is, the iPad gives me some qualms.
A little background. I got my first Mac exposure in 1988, eighth grade, back in the days of System 6 and Pagemaker 1.0. It was love at first use. The mouse interface is old hat now but then it was a tremendous improvement on typing arcane DOS commands.
DJ Kool Herc describes “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band as the national anthem of hip-hop. “Apache” includes a famous drum and percussion break that has reliably put bodies on the dance floor through hip-hop’s prehistory: