Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Planets

I was nearly 30 before I heard the phrase, "There's no accounting for taste". Truer words were never spoken. It's also the case that over the course of my life, I've been attracted to things well out of the mainstream. Just because this music works for me, there's no reason it should for you. But if you feel the need for something fresh in your musical diet, give it a shot.

In a number of posts I've talked how excited I am about Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure approach to helping folks come at the issue of embouchure in a wonderfully accessible way. In some deep sense, I think Kyle Gann is doing something similar in helping us to rethink the possibilities of tonal music in a new and very natural way. Both Smiley and Gann seem to be saying, "Forget the experts; come at music and music making as you are." Just as Smiley talks about how one's best embouchure can't be arrived at by following rules handed down by the masters, Gann's music creates wondrous new forms by leaving behind the monotony of regular bar-lines and harmonies meant for the parlor. 

Rel√Ęche is an odd assortment of instruments, sort of a chamber concert band without brass but with a occasional viola. Gann seems to exult in oddness of timbres, even to flaunting his ability to turn it to his uses. 

All of the novel sound sculptures in The Planets mean that you can't simply assign them to familiar pattern correspondences. Several times while listening I've had the phrase " A poem should not mean but be", float up. There are a lot of times in The Planets where the sound shapes don't easily map to known quantities. But nothing is so far removed from "normal" that it's incomprehensible.

One caveat I should throw in is that I've been following Kyle Gann's blog, PostClassic for years. When you read someone's writing that closely, an image of them forms in your mind, especially if you were an English major in a previous lifetime. While there are a number of passages in The Planets where I'm not sure of their "meaning", I have the feeling of Kyle coming to life in sound.

Friday, April 23, 2010


This book review by Jan Swafford is a nice overview of the temperament question. Thanks to A. C. Douglas for pointing it out.

Here's the main problem:

As Pythagoras also realized in mathematical terms, if you start with a C at the bottom of a piano keyboard and tune a series of 12 perfect 3:2 fifths up to the top, you discover that where you expect to have returned to a perfect high C, that C is overshot, intolerably out of tune. In other words, nature's math doesn't add up. A series of perfect intervals doesn't end at a perfect interval from where you started. If you tune three perfect 5:4 major thirds, it should logically add up to an octave, but it doesn't; the result is egregiously flat.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Music, Movement & Autism

This short article is on some very preliminary work combining music and movement to help autistic children who are non-verbal to learn to speak.

The theory behind the therapy is that the combination of sound and movement can activate a network of brain regions that overlap with brain areas thought to be abnormal in children with autism. Researchers think the intensive, repetitive training on sound paired with motion will help strengthen those abnormal areas.

Clocks and Clouds

Here's a short article in the latest Wired which offers some cautionary advice about the nature of the type of neuroscience research I'm often linking to. This is the concluding paragraph:

Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, once divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Time Awareness

One component of music making is that it is an aural manifestation of our sense of the passage of time. This article is about how the brain processes time.

. . . .“This is because your brain is constantly calibrating duration,” Eagleman explains. “If every time you flip on the lights there is a 200-millisecond delay, your brain recognizes the pattern and edits out the delay. Flip the switch, and the lights seem to turn on instantaneously. But if you moved to a funky house where the lights really did come on instantaneously, it would appear that they came on before you flipped the switch. Your brain is temporarily stuck on the old pattern.”. . .

. . . . This suggested that the brain maintains at least two separate versions of time, a master clock that feeds you a perception of the now, and another that is constantly at work tidying up that perception. . . .

. . . .unlike speech, which is processed in Broca’s area, or vision, which the occipital lobe handles—our sense of time is not centralized. . . .

. . . But Eagleman is finding that time might be relative even if the two observers are standing next to each other. He has a long way to go to prove that time is not the objective constant we think it to be, and that each person instead experiences time’s passage on an individual basis, but, he says, “it does make one wonder what else we’re going to learn along the way.”

This is the first time I've seen a researcher talking about something besides music that is processed in various parts of the brain simultaneously. The other thing is that I think most music makers have had the experience of time seeming to pass at different speeds, especially in moments of flow.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Modular Music

One of the many things I've learned working with the Friday Group/Kenwood Players is that any positive effects of short pieces (say 2 or 3 minutes) in performance are erased by the shuffling around before and after. So I'm trying to string together tunes that have similar tempi by putting them in the same, or closely related keys, and just conjoining them as Handel did some of his short pieces, just going from one to the other with no transition. 

The individual tunes are clearly marked with double bar lines at beginning and ending, with the title given over the first measure, so beginners can work on individual pieces before stringing them together.

What looks to be a fun aspect of all of this is that once the basic work of transposition and juxtaposition is done, then the players can jump from piece to piece in whatever order suits, not necessarily the way it's laid out on the page. As far as I'm concerned, anything that helps players see the written music a just a simple aid to playing, as opposed to a holy writ, will help them become better players in the long run. 

The other thing I'm aiming for in these little arrangements is that they will sound fine played as is, but they can also be used as stepping stones to improvisation. Lavishly detailed scores can be fun to dig into, but they can also feel way over-determined if they head into directions that don't appeal to the player(s). 

Seeing the player(s) as more important than the music means the scores are going to have a different purpose and are going to have a different look and feel.

photo - garden greens.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Embodied Remodeling

I've been going through a remodel and subsequent rearranging of lots of the physical components of my everyday life. As I've been using various rooms in new ways, and having regular routines disrupted, new ways of conceptualizing aspects of the music materials project keep floating up. 

The notion of embodied cognition holds that for even our most abstract cognitive processes, there are physical cognates buried within. My suspicion is that the physical rearrangement of my daily life is triggering cognitive rearrangements of various projects at hand.

Pete Seeger Banjo

I've mentioned from time to time playing a banjo and here's a photo of the one I use. It's an old Gibson I got second hand back in 1967 when a freshman at Duke. It's called a "Pete Seeger" model (or "folk banjo" or "long neck banjo") because he's the one that popularized this particular model.

Where the capo is on the third fret is where regular banjos stop. The extra three frets allow for longer strings and a deeper sound when the capo isn't used, which is great for baritones. It's also the case that to make the instrument strong enough for that extra string length, it weighs a ton, but that extra weight adds heft to the sound as well. 

Currently the fifth string has been removed because I'm playing it as if it were a tenor banjo with the Dixieland group and the Kenwood Players. Having that drone just doesn't work with all the jazz chords and the chamber wind ensemble.

One of the glorious things about a banjo is that the bridge is held in place by simple string tension, so it can be placed exactly right so that the first harmonic matches the 12th fret. That, and the fact the bridge is sitting on a drum head that's set in motion when the strings vibrate, is why the banjo "rings".

Of all the instruments I play, the banjo pulls people in the most. There's just something about it people love to hear and to come up and talk about.

New Guitar

I hadn't looked at new guitars for something like 25 years, but here lately have been wanting a steel string acoustic with a microphone inside with the jack for it where the shoulder strap attaches to the back of the instrument.

Turns out there's a new design that wasn't available all those years ago. While built for steel strings (rather than nylon), the strings are further apart than standard steel string guitars, though not quite as far apart as they are on most nylon string classical guitars. The fretboard is also much flatter than a standard steel string, though not perfectly flat like nylon string guitars. In both stores I went to, these newly designed guitars were said to be for "progressive" players.

It's a joy to play and has a robust, bright sound, even without using the onboard mic, but when it's plugged into the sound system, the sound is just about perfect for accompanying the Kenwood Players without having to work so hard for volume.

Because of the spacing of the strings, strumming is a little different and different effects can be had. It really is a hybrid of the classical nylon and the American steel string, and plays in its own way.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Daniel Lanois

Daniel Lanois helped Bob Dylan create Oh, Mercy. They recorded it in a house in the Garden District of New Orleans and captured some of the vibe of The Crescent City. Whenever I listen to the album, it always reminds me of an Allman Brothers concert back in the early 70's I went to down in some warehouse near the river just off the amazingly named Tchopitoulas Street. The music was powerful and energetic, but there were these amazing moments of relaxation, lazy blues licks floating in the humid night. 

The main thing about Oh, Mercy for me, though, is that it's a touchstone for how you produce a CD. There's an amazing sound palette Lanois brings to bear in the arrangements that pull performances out of Dylan that are among my favorites. 

Lanois also writes and performs his own music. This video is of a song he wrote called "The Maker", as performed by Emmylou Harris and Spyboy. He's expanding and playing with the song form just like he does with CD production.