Sunday, October 31, 2010

Two Years On

Just completed my second year of blogging and taking the opportunity to do the long overdue blog housework of changing Alex Ross back to The Rest Is Noise over on the Regular Reads and adding Dave Wilken's Wilktone to the Regular Reads: Horn. Also changed both blog rolls to most recent post order instead of alphabetical order.

Adding Dave's blog because in between hard core brass and embouchure posts, which will be of little interest to non-brass players, he's been doing some great posting on the basic issue of how it is we teach others to play music.  

Lately I've been doing more commenting on other blogs than posting here, hoping that over time some of those ideas will become clearer to me and I'll say something more definitive here.

I want to thank all the folks over on the regular read lists, as their blogging has given the context and inspiration for my writing here, at least in my mind. With the exceptions of Alex Ross and Opera Chic, I've been lucky enough to be in touch and have wonderful interactions with all of them, either through e-mail or comments and posts going back and forth, or both. Having for years seen people's eyes glaze over, especially when they were music specialists, when hearing I was a music therapist, these conversations have been immensely rewarding both professionally and personally.

Special thanks to Jonathan West for getting Timepiece performed. The connection was via blogging, a benefit I never dreamed of when starting out. I'm now back to composing a little and having a great time.  Were it not for Jonathan's interest and spending the time and energy to get that performance off the ground, I don't think writing new music, as opposed to learning how to arrange music for small ensemble, would have occurred to me. 

Jonathan has sent an mp3 of the (terrific) performance that, in the fullness of time, I want to put to an iMovie, then upload to YouTube, then embed in the blog. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Brain Wave Music(?)

The back story for this video is given in this Wired story. Basically they hacked a gaming device that reads brain waves by feeding it into a couple of synthesizers. It's hard to tell how much "brain wave" is actually involved. As crude as it is, though, it points the way to an interesting future.

In this post from a while back (which gets steady hits) there's a quote talking about how brain waves seem to mimic the sound waves of music we're listening to.

Friday, October 22, 2010

V.S. Louisiana Sashay

Here's how things look for now. I may well go back and fine tune some of this, but it feels like it's working, and it's gotten to the point where I think it'll be better to take what's been done as the basis for what comes next rather than to keep adding new elements. 

These images are taken from the working file, but I've left out the alto flute staff to reduce clutter (and because I decided to do the piece first without it so it can stand as a duet), doubled the size of the notation to make it legible here on the blog, and tinkered with the layout for the same reason. My preferred format for hard copy scores is legal landscape with notation around 75% of default. That allows me so see whole sections of music like sentences in a book, as opposed to a narrow newspaper column.

Things start out with a harp solo which is answered by a flute solo. It's much easier to have one player start and the other(s) then join in than it is for everyone to start playing in synch right out of the gate. I hadn't fully realized this until now, but I think all of my ensemble pieces have a single player setting the tempo for others to join. There's also the idea of letting each voice be heard on it's own to set the aural table for the audience. 

The harp has a series chords laying out the basic sashay rhythm. The computer playback tempo is 108 for a quarter note. The chords are missing either thirds or fifths to give them that open sounding harmony I like so much and which should sound great on the harp. Only the last chord is an arpeggio so as to emphasize the rhythm. 
The flute solo generally follows the contours of the harp solo, but not quite - that mixing of the expected and the unexpected. Then another, briefer harp solo, and while it's still ringing from the last arpeggio, the flute comes in on a high C on a pickup and then the harp and flute play together with the same rhythm for three measures. I love high soaring melodies.
Then the flute breaks away doing flutey things with the harp playing simple octaves for a bit. One of the things I'm trying to do is avoid letting the harp slip out of the audience's attention because of its doing something repetitive. And in general I try to vary the textures of the sound as much as all the other elements involved. 

The flute motive in measure 21, 22 and 23 is the closest to mimicking a sashay as I've gotten.

Now the flute plays around with the little motive in measure 19
In measure 29 there's a bit of the unison rhythm again, then in 30 the harp breaks out into arpeggios, and they sort of take off on their own for a while. For now measure 35 begins a reprise of the opening harp solo and I'm thinking of having the flute join in to intensify what has already been heard once. I don't do sonata form style development, but I do like to create familiarity with various elements by bringing them back in different ways. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Group Intelligence

This article talks about how the effective intelligence of a group depends more on how they get along with each other than the sum of individual IQ's.

. . . Group intelligence depends less on how smart individuals are and more on their social sensitivity, ability to take turns speaking, and the number of women in the group. . . 

. . . Woolley says she was surprised to find that neither the average intelligence of the group members nor the intelligence of the smartest member played much of a role in the overall group intelligence. Social sensitivity – measured using a test in which participants had to identify another person's feelings by looking at photographs of their eyes – was by far the most important factor. . .

. . . The team also found that groups in which members took turns speaking were more collectively intelligent, as were groups containing a majority of women. Woolley thinks this may be because the women had higher levels of social sensitivity than the men. . .

This reminded me of a post I thought was by Jeffrey Agrell, which I can't find, so maybe it wasn't by him. The point of it was that when an orchestra auditions someone, they ought to do it socially as well as musically, as both are important for good music making. Also, in this post of mine Jonathan West talks about collaborative music making. 

As a music therapist, how the people making the music are getting along is as important, if not more so, than the music. This article, though about intelligence and not music making, seems to suggest that the quality of the group's interaction might affect the music as well. It's the sort of thing most of us would assume is the case, but a little empirical data is welcome.

This also probably has a lot to do with why I much prefer being a facilitator of group music making than a director or conductor. Besides not having nearly the skills needed to conduct, social/musical interactions are more interesting to me than abstract music.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Arts Training and the Brain

This article is the most in depth I've seen so far on the topic of how arts training benefits the brain.

We know that the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to attention. We know that training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. And we can be fairly sure that focusing our attention on learning and performing an art—if we practice frequently and are truly engaged—activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.

Some may construe this argument as a bold associative leap, but it’s grounded in solid science. The linchpin in this equation is the attention system. Attention plays a crucial role in learning and memory, and its importance in cognitive performance is undisputed. If you really want to learn something, pay attention! We all know this intuitively, and plenty of strong scientific data back it up. . . 

. . . From our perspective, the key to transfer is diligence: Practicing for long periods of time and in an absorbed way can cause changes in more than the specific brain network related to the skill. Sustained focus can also produce stronger and more efficient attention networks, and these key networks in turn affect cognitive skills more generally. . . 

. . . Neuroimaging studies have also proved that the following specialized neural networks underlie various aspects of attention:

alerting network, which enables the brain to achieve and maintain an alert state;
orienting network, which keeps the brain attuned to external events in our environment;
executive attention network, which helps us control our emotions and choose among conflicting thoughts in order to focus on goals over long periods of time. . . 

. . . exposure to the “right” art form can fully engage children’s attention and can be highly rewarding for them. They may get so involved in learning the art that they lose track of time or even “lose themselves” while practicing it. I believe that few other school subjects can produce such strong and sustained attention that is at once rewarding and motivating. That is why arts training is particularly appealing as a potential means for improving cognition. Other engaging subjects might be useful as well, but the arts may be unique in that so many children have a strong interest in them.

The article makes clear we're in early days yet in figuring all this out, but that it all looks very promising. 

On a language note, I particularly like their using "engagement" when talking about the children and music making. In working with clients, my prime directive has always been to do whatever I can to get them more fully engaged in music making. I think for a lot of educators, especially those overloaded with students and work, the engagement factor is up to the student and if they drop out for lack of it, it's better for those remaining in the program.

Of course, a lot of educators go out of their way to keep their students engaged. Martin I. Gaines, who sent me this article, somehow managed to direct our community band in it's first year with me blatting along on the horn from a standing start. I thought about quitting several times, but his enthusiasm and support kept me there. A great example of his attitude was right after our first concert and I apologized for all the wrong notes I'd played. Without missing a beat he said, with a huge grin, "But think of all the ones you got right!" 

Thanks, maestro!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Music/Mind Training

Many thanks to Pliable for sending along this link to a story on what the neuroscientists have discovered about the brains of some Tibetan Buddhist monks, each of whom had spent anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 hours in meditation before the testing.

. . . first, the monks exhibited a higher ratio of high frequency gamma brainwaves to slower alpha and beta waves during their resting baseline before the experiment began; and when the monks engaged in meditation, this ratio skyrocketed—up to 30 times stronger than that of the non-meditators. In fact, the gamma activity measured in some of the practitioners was the highest ever reported in a non-pathological context. Not only did this suggest that long-term mental training could alter brain activity, it also suggested that compassion might be something that could be cultivated. . . .

. . . In the brains of the meditators, they found larger volumes of gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus, areas thought to be implicated in emotion and response control. "It is likely that the observed larger hippocampal volumes may account for meditators' singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior," Luders writes.

These data points get at what I was trying to say in this post where I talked about some of the similarities between music training and mind training. If you're going to try to connect with and have an effect (that you want to have, not an unintended one) on audiences with your music making, you need to work on more than simple (no matter how advanced) technique. 

The complication for music makers is that you're not practicing feeling an emotion, but how to project it, which is not the same thing.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

V.S. Odds and Ends

I've gotten a minute's worth of music that, as of last night, seems to work. This post just to mention a few ancillary things.

Finale - I love it because it allows for my various non-standard ways of doing music notation, but that very complexity can be a problem when I can't remember how to do something, either because the latest update changes something, or because I simply forgot due to not doing that task for a year or so. Case in point is the time signature. When I was going back over Timepiece to make parts for a local quintet to read through (they liked it), noticed that I'd figured out how to have something like 3+3+2+2 all over a single 8 below back in 1996 and just had to look to see how I'd done it.

Resolution - Visually it's how many pixels per square inch. In audio it's something about how many bits per something. On tv when they pixel-ate something to obscure it, we notice the boundary of the high and low resolution. In writing music I try not to have any boundaries like that in the rhythm (no bursts of 32nd notes in a stately half note/ quarter note melody) or harmony (no sudden shifts out of key/mode. I think it also applies to other ways I judge the music I write that are tougher to write about, like gesture.

Writing for particular players/instruments - Listening to the local group read through Timepiece reminded me that I'm always thinking of what the individual players are doing, and whether or not it's interesting. Dr. Andy told me once that in the Bach B Minor Mass, in one section the cellos have the same repeated quarter note for measures on end. When I'm writing for ensembles, in my mind it's however many soloists coming together for the piece, and everyone gets some time high in the mix. In this piece it's trying to keep the harpist interested and to see just how many ways the harp (for which I've never written before) can make music.

Computer Playback - Besides not being able to write music without a keyboard, having the computer play back what I've done is essential. I don't have theory mind and simply cannot manifest the music in my head by reading a score. I've always thought the computer playback is sort of like an X-ray that clearly shows the interior structure of the piece, but that the true nature of the piece is revealed only by performance. That's part of the reason my hearing first performances of things I've written is such an amazing experience.

Attention - One of my complaints about the concert band repertoire is that most of it seems an early incarnation of the MTV gimmick of constantly shifting the image to hold the attention of an audience. I keep thinking the arrangers decide on what transitions of speed and tonality and articulation they what to teach the kids and then forage about for bits of music to put between them ;-) But I've come to realize I do the same thing, just without the shifts of speed/meter and tonality. Once I write something that seems to work for a few bars I'll often try to extend it for longer than it wants, not catching at first that it's becoming boring. Many of my deletions of the last several measures and starting over are due to this. The other deletions are, of course, trying where to go instead. It really is like some sort of glass bead game, and when it works there's a wonderful feeling being connected to something outside myself.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Performing New Music

Here are a couple of paragraphs from a recent Kyle Gann post I want to save because they speak to an aspect of the current state of "classical" music I hadn't really been aware of, but it makes a lot of sense once you have it called to your attention.

. . . This is difficult music to play, even though clear-lined, melodic, and devoid of the 11-against-9 grupetti and rhythmic fragmentation of an Elliott Carter or a Pierre Boulez. And why, since it scorns such complexities, is it so difficult? Because, like every new style, it demands of performers a certain sensibility that must be internalized. The unison lines and rhythms of totalist chamber music entail an ensemble unity of gesture quite different from the heavily-counted Babbitt serialist work or the flexible, diversely-functioned give-and-take of a Schumann piano quintet. The smooth uniformity of line, casual yet without swell or nuance, demands ears nurtured on the minimalism of Terry Riley and Phillip Glass, and hands and lips that can swing like John Coltrane. 

If I may ascend my soap box and preach just the briefest sermon, very few chamber ensembles have learned to negotiate music derived from minimalist influences because they don't perceive the difficulties involved. They glance at the score, see a line of unison 8th-notes, say to themselves, "Oh, this is nothing, I played the Carter Fourth String Quartet," and then they proceed to underrehearse and perform miserably. I've heard it all too often. I've heard members of the New York Philharmonic do a laughable job on a piece as simple as Terry Riley's In C. A handful of groups, like the California EAR Unit, Relache, Kronos Quartet, and Essential Music have superbly cultivated the technique needed for post-minimalist music. What are the rest waiting for, a message from God? As Schoenberg said - and it applies again in each new generation - "My music isn't modern, it's only badly played."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Just want to pull this quote from this post by Pliable:

A number of tastemaker classical blogs picked the story up and ran with it, including Alex Ross via Twitter, Patty at Oboe Insight, James Primosch, Antoine Leboyer and Lyle Sanford.

Getting tagged on to the end of that sentence made my day. The blogosphere is a very interesting neighborhood. 

Philip Ball Article

This article by Philip Ball hits on several topics:

. . . Focal dystonia is sometimes called 'musician's cramp', but it is not a primarily muscular problem: it begins in the brain. As neuroscientist Jessica Grahn of the University of Cambridge, UK, explains, it stems from the fact that intense musical practice can overinflate the mental representation of the relevant part of the body (usually the fingers, although it can affect lip control in brass players). Once the neural representations of the fingers overlap, they can no longer be controlled independently. . . . But it is precisely because the disorder is a neural rather than a muscular problem that dystonia is so hard to treat, and there is still no genuine cure. . . . 

. . . Although she acknowledges that musical expression is multi-faceted, she argues that current neurological studies suggest that the activation of mirror neurons — 'empathy circuits' that fire both when we watch another person perform an action and when we perform it ourselves — offer a clue about how music works. It may be, she says, that when we hear music, we can 'read' it as we would read indicators of emotional state in another person's vocal or physical gestures. . . . .

. . .  support may be emerging for the suggestion of philosopher Susanne Langer that music mimics the dynamics of emotion itself. Or, as psychologist Carroll Pratt put it in 1931, that 'music sounds the way emotions feel'.

Lama Tashi at Harvest Time

An American friend of Lama Tashi is with him over in Arunachal Pradesh, with a group that's working to provide a healthier water supply to Lama Tashi's home village. Wanted to put up this photo with harvested corn because all the melodies on the CD Mantra Mountain except one were learned by Lama Tashi as a child at the harvest festival in this village where he grew up. The one other melody is by one of the early Dalai Lamas and kept alive via monastic oral tradition.

I just changed the links on the two photos of the album over on the right so that the top one goes to a generous review by Pliable at On An Overgrown Path and the bottom one goes to a post where you can read the music for the mantra of compassion. 

Have seen a few mentions of Satie's Vexations lately. Mantras can go on for just as long or longer and allow for easy improvisation.

Jeff Smiley & Neuroscience

Here lately I've realized that the best way to explain my championing Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure is that his book and method take into account, more than any other I've encountered, what the neuroscience is telling us about music making. There are a lot of levels and systems in play, and learning how to make music means learning and getting a feel for a lot of different things and modes of behavior and getting it all to work together. 

Every time I've reread The Balanced Embouchure there have been head slapping epiphanies, and I think that's due to his covering so many bases, it's hard to hold it all in your head at the same time. Next time around I'm going to keep notes on the different aspects he covers. Then maybe I can figure out how to apply that to music making as a whole, not just embouchure formation.

A crucial part of getting all these systems working together is devising exercises that allow the brain to make it's own adjustments, as opposed to trying to tell each muscle what it should be doing. I was reminded of this by this post over on Hornmatters, where Professor Ericson puts up a letter written by one of the authors of methods he's been discussing, William C. Robinson. Here's a short quote that rang the bell for me:

. . . Think the pitch, quality and sound you want and the brain (which is the greatest computer ever invented) will tell the embouchure what to do to produce that tone. You don’t try to control the embouchure by trying to control the embouchure – instead, think the pitch, use the air and the brain will tell the embouchure what to do to produce that sound.

Monday, October 4, 2010

V.S. Various Items

Each of these could be a post in itself, but if I do that, the piece will never be written, or at least, not anytime soon.

Instrument specific music:
I've always written with specific instruments in mind, so the downside is that it's often not easily adapted to other instrumentation. To me, one of the hallmarks of Bach is that his music can sound great, no matter the instrumentation. The upside, though, is letting the way an instrument is played, and it's range and tone, be the very suggestive starting point in writing the music. 

The harp:
 I can't think of another instrument where the physical gestures of making music so closely map the music itself. I've been playing a lot of "air harp" to get some sort of feel of what it must be like to play one. The major discovery is that the little fingers of both hands play lower notes than the thumb, whereas I'm used to piano where the right thumb plays lower notes than the right little finger.

It keeps shifting, but right now thinking of a two flat key signature with F as the tonic. That makes the I chord a flatted seventh and the V chord minor. Also have thought to mention that I like to start out using octaves with the fourth and/or the fifth played in the middle. This is neither major nor minor, and besides having that ambiguity, it hearkens back to when thirds were thought dissonant, which they are when compared to octaves, fourths and fifths. If you use thirds from start to finish you're limiting your tonal palette to secondary colors.

One of the things the neuroscience is telling us is that what pleases us is a combination of the expected and the unexpected. Using modal harmonies and odd key signatures, neither of which are drastically different than the norms, makes it easier to do fresh sounding things without going too far over into the unexpected. As I write measure by measure, there's always the judgement as to whether what's written is somewhere between the expected and the unexpected in a balance I find appealing. There must be some consistency in these judgments, and everything else I'm doing, as several people have commented that I have a recognizable "style" or "sound". 

Not repeating compositions:
Every time I write something I try to push a little beyond whatever has worked before. Looking back on some of the old discarded pieces, a lot of them were abandoned because they were too much like things I'd already done, and somehow, trying to make that sound fresh is harder than setting out in a little different direction.

A real title:
If I can write something to go with it, may call the piece A Louisiana Sashay. Sometime back I wrote a piece for Susan and gave "at a moderate sashay" as a tempo indication. She liked that and played the piece that way. She and Carol both have strong Louisiana connections. Lou -si an -a  sa - shay fits the 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 rhythm if I go back and change the four grouping to two twos. Having lived in New Orleans for two years back in the early 70's, there are a lot of images and associations I can draw on. 

Gann Again

Here are two quotes from a recent Kyle Gann post:

. . . in truth I am disappointed if my music is playing and a passerby, any passerby, doesn't stop to ask, with a twinkle of curiosity, "What is THAT?"

I know the feeling.

. . . This is partly why I can't get into highly detailed notation. I put staccato dots on a few notes and call a piece finished, and the next day I wake up and look at it and say, "No no, that should be legato!", and draw in a slur instead, and afterward I'll change my mind again. The piece changes for me too much in my head to try to obsessively pin it down with interpretive markings. The score is a guide, like lines in a play, not a fixed objet d'art.

Back when I had a number of piano students and had recitals, one of the things I most loved to do was have several players include the same piece in the set they played. That single piece would always sound very different coming from the hands of different players, and the differences illuminated the music as much as the players.

As to the overall point of the post, for whom is one composing, the Buddhist mind tool of considering one's motivation is very helpful.