Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Oxford Companion to Music

I've had a copy of the tenth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music close at hand for thirty some years. It's the best single resource for information and insight into "classical" music I've ever come across, and is delightfully entertaining as well, due to the wonderful writing of Percy A. Scholes.

This opening paragraph of the entry on tempo is a great example of what is, to me, some of the best writing on music there is.

Tempo usually means 'speed'. Upon the choice of the best speed the effect of music greatly depends. Every composition may be said to have its correct tempo, but this is not capable of being minutely fixed without scope or variation, as to some extent circumstantial factors enter, such as the character of the instrument used (e.g. organs may greatly differ in their effect), and the size and reverberation of the room (a very reverberant room requiring a slower tempo if the music is to 'tell'). Moreover, the general character of the interpretation decided upon may affect the tempo: one performer may consider that a particular piece will be most effective if every detail be made clear (calling for a slower tempo) and another that it will be most effective if treated in a 'broad' style calling for a quicker tempo; and both these interpretations may be good ones. Further, a highly rhythmic performance at a slower tempo may give the impression of being quicker than a really quicker one with less rhythmic life. In fact, what matters is not the tempo the performer actually adopts but the tempo that the listener is led to imagine he is hearing, for whilst in science things are what they are, in art things are what they seem.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Military Mind Training

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think the Buddhist techniques of mind training can be helpful to music makers. This story on mindfulness techniques used by the U. S. Marines has some concise quotes on the general benefits of mind training.

Designed by former U.S. Army captain and current Georgetown University professor Elizabeth Stanley, M-Fit draws on a growing body of scientific research indicating that regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.

Four years ago, a small group of Marine reservists training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for deployment to Iraq participated in the M-Fit pilot program, taking an eight-week mindfulness course and meditating for an average of 12 minutes a day.

A study of those Marines subsequently published in the research journal Emotions found that they slept better, had improved athletic performance and scored higher on emotional and cognitive evaluations than Marines who did not participate in the program, which centers on training the mind to focus on the current moment and to be aware of one’s physical state. . . .

. . . . “It’s like working out in the gym,” said Ms. Jha, the director of contemplative neuroscience for the University of Miami’s Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “Right now, the military has daily physical training. Every day, they get together and exercise. But the equivalent is not given to the mind. The more [these troops] practiced, the more they benefited.” . . . 

. . . Why the cognitive boost? The answer lies in neuroscience. Previous studies have shown that habitual meditation:

• Changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain;
• Strengthens the neural circuits responsible for concentration and empathy;
• Shrinks the amygdala, an area of the brain that controls the fear response;
• Enlarges the hippocampus, an area of the brain that controls memory

One thing I'd like to emphasize is that 12 minutes a day was enough to show a significant result. My friend Lama Tashi once said to me that a short meditation practice every day was far superior to great long sessions some days and none on others. I think that most music makers would agree that the same goes for practicing music. 

Generally speaking, though, I think all music makers could benefit from something that, "alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation".

Monday, December 3, 2012

Spider Silk Music

Here's a fascinating story out of MIT about using music to better understand the protein structure of spider silk.

. . . When the music was played, the least successful fibres — those consisting of strong protein molecules which didn’t stick together as a thread — created an aggressive and harsh composition. Weaker molecules which actually generated usable fibres led to much softer and more fluid compositions.
“There might be an underlying structural expression in music that tells us more about the proteins that make up our bodies,” said Buehler. “After all, our organs — including the brain — are made from these building blocks, and humans’ expression of music may inadvertently include more information that we are aware of.” . . . 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Music Making Synchronizes Brainwaves

A while back I posted on a study showing how musicians brain waves can synchronize when playing music together. The same group has done more work on the subject.

  In 60 trials each, the pairs of musicians showed coordinated brain oscillations — or matching rhythms of neural activity — in regions of the brain associated with social cognition and music production, the researchers said. . . .  

. . .  the researchers say their results provide stronger evidence that there is a neural basis for interpersonal coordination. The team believes people's brain waves might also synchronize during other types of actions, such as during sports games.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Horn Diary

Back in August I got a new horn and it's been an amazing ride ever since. The move was from a Yamaha 567 to a 667, and it's still hard for me to believe how much easier it is to play. It's physically lighter, so playing off the leg as I do is less tiring, but the main thing is that the "slots" for each pitch are so much easier to hit. It's as if they are more uniform throughout the full range of the horn and that there's a much more either/or feel to getting the right pitch. 

It's also the case that I find it much easier to hit what note I want at the beginning of a piece, or after a long rest. That used to be a scary proposition for some pitches, but somehow those better defined slots make that easier as well.

With the new horn, my high G immediately went from sometimes there to just as good as the notes right below it, and the high Ab and A are starting to be possible. The written D a ninth above middle C has also become much easier to play. Previously it was always something like a register shift that I didn't always get, and now it's just another note.

Overall the instrument just feels more refined, especially the rotor levers. I now sometimes notice I'm playing with exactly the right amount of finger effort and that the valves changes are much more synchronous with embouchure changes as I move from note to note.

The overall tone is more refined as well, though I wonder if I'll ever be able to get that raw sense of anguish I got during the Fauré Requiem on the old horn. 

I didn't post on the new horn right away because I wondered if there'd be a honeymoon period right at first, and there was. After about 10 days or two weeks there was a week or two of getting that slight buzzing sound that almost sounds like something is loose, but that somewhere Farkas says is a bit of saliva right in the aperture of the embouchure. After a while I somehow adjusted and the horn plays as it did right at first.

Since my background is largely in stringed instruments - guitar, cello and banjo - I'd never really experienced how a better instrument is so much easier to play. With the strings the same technique will sound better on a better instrument, but there's nowhere near as much of a sense of the instrument being so much easier to play. 

On a different topic - I've finally begun to transpose horn music. The same local music man who organized the Fauré Requiem a couple of years ago is going to do the Brahms Requiem this spring and has asked me to play, so I downloaded the horn parts. I don't think I'll ever be able to transpose at sight, but working with this music over a couple of weeks I've been able to play it as written and not needing to put it in Finale and transposing it, as I always thought I would have to. Because I've played piano since childhood, both bass and treble clef read as second nature - and with all the arranging I've been doing, viola clef and tenor clef make sense to me. With that background, seeing music written in one key and playing it in another is really just sort of another clef substitution.

One last thing is a comment on the strength of muscle memory. The trigger on the new horn was set up as they all are, needing the trigger pulled to get the Bb horn. Back when I had my embouchure crisis and began working with Jeff Smiley's Balanced Embouchure method, I also restrung the trigger so that doing nothing gives me the Bb side and depressing the trigger gives me the F. My thought was that I was tensing up way too much in places I didn't need to when playing the Bb side, so that relaxing the thumb when going that direction helped me counter the over stressing. (I get a lot of strange looks from regular horn players). Anyway, the point is that until I restrung the new horn, I really couldn't play it as the trigger feeling backwards threw me for a loop. Intellectually I knew it really shouldn't make a difference, but it did. I went to a store to try out the new horn, but basically decided to get it on faith as I couldn't really play it as it was.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Archeo-acoustics Round-up

This article in Discovery Magazine covers a lot of what archeologists have been discovering about the acoustical properties of ancient sites, and then talks about one I hadn't heard of before in central Peru.
The most detailed evidence of ancient acoustical design comes from the Stanford team studying Chavín de Huántar, which was constructed between 1300 and 500 B.C. Peruvian archaeologists first suspected the complex had an auditory function in the 1970s, when they found that water rushing through one of its canals mimicked the sound of roaring applause. Then, in 2001, Stanford anthropologist John Rick discovered conch-shell trumpets, called pututus, in one of the galleries. The team set out to determine what role the horns played in ancient rituals and how the temple may have heightened their effects. Archaeoacoustics researcher Miriam Kolar and her collaborators played computer-generated sounds to identify which frequencies the temple most readily transmits. Over years of experiments, they found that certain ducts enhanced the frequencies of the pututus while filtering out others, and that corridors amplified the trumpets’ sound. “It suggests the architectural forms had a special relationship to how sound is transmitted,” Kolar says. The researchers also had volunteers stand in one part of the temple while pututu recordings played in another. In some configurations, the sound seemed to come from all directions.

Friday, November 9, 2012


I just came across this story on "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response" and want to put up a link because it fits into something I've been thinking about a lot lately. It's my feeling that people are communicating in more ways than we are aware of, and in ways science has yet to adequately describe.

Several years ago I had a go around with frequent commenter Jonathan West over how to talk about the way we sometimes feel so fully engaged with other music makers, particularly during "flow" experiences, and that that feeling can extend to and include audiences as well. I came up with the phrase "enhanced awareness" so as to avoid the negative baggage of ESP.

According to people who feel they can have this experience, ASMR can be triggered by a whole series of videos with boring content delivered in a whispering voice. One of the makers of these videos, which have an established internet audience, says, 

“I think it has to do with childhood,” she said. “Whenever your mother would treat you delicately, or your doctor or teacher would talk to you gently… The caring touch is the biggest trigger.”

The physical response in susceptible people is said to be:

a tingle in your brain, a kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine. It’s a shortcut to a blissed-out meditative state that allows you to watch long videos that for someone who doesn’t have ASMR are mind-meltingly dull.

Wikipedia has kicked off pages trying to talk about this, so it's definitely fringe territory. Should there be something to it, though, I can't imagine there's not some kind of an overlap with some kinds of music.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Performance Diary

Last Thursday evening Dick and Maggie and I did a little benefit performance for the 15th anniversary of the Arts Center in Orange. We played in the cleaned up clay studio for about fifty people who have made generous donations in the past and were being asked to donate again towards the goal of making building improvements so as to have more useable space for classes and small studios.

For me it was one of the most enjoyable performances ever, in that the set list was a mix of genres spread over the two hours. I've often thought that musical performances could be more like a multiple course meal with varying types of music to keep things fresh and interesting for the audience as the evening progresses, and this event allowed me to fully test that idea and see that it can work.

For about twenty minutes before the official start time of the reception I played keyboard things I've written for friends and students over the years. They're relatively easy to play and allow for a lot of interpretive latitude to match and lead the feeling in the room. I started very softly because so many people have had negative experiences with musicians playing too loudly. With each piece I turned up the volume the tiniest of increments, yet was always able to hear and understand conversations on the other side of the room. Once the event officially started I just went back and played them all again just a bit louder.

Next we played a few things arranged for trumpet, clarinet and alto flute - the medieval springtime carol Angelus Ad Virginem, and then a few of the short dances from Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Dick is a professional level trumpet player in dance bands and a great lover of Dixieland jazz, but can play with a marvelously quiet and sweet tone in chamber music and blended wonderfully with the clarinet and alto flute. Having him play softly at first was another part of the plan to acclimatize the audience to the presence of a trumpet that could play louder as the evening went on.

I then switched to guitar and we played Mrs. Madison's Minuet and a few of the other pieces of the James and Dolley Madison era we'd worked up earlier this year. 

After that we played a number of things previously arranged for the full group that worked well for just the three of us. Here's a list of those titles:

Ain't She Sweet
All of Me
Deep River Blues (Doc Watson)
Georgia On My Mind
Hello Dolly!
Hey, Good Lookin'
King of the Road
Let's Twist Again
Rockin' Robin
Take Me Home, Country Roads 
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)
Tuxedo Junction
Yes Sir, That's My Baby

After that I went back to solo keyboard, playing the accompaniment to Mosaic, a piece for flute and piano written years ago. By itself it's a great piece of what I think Erik Satie meant by furniture music. That was intended to help wind down the evening, and then for a final piece I played the harmonized Dedication of Merit from Lama Tashi's Mantra Mountain CD. 

Throughout the evening I had the feeling things were going very well, and that was validated by a very enthusiastic round of applause when we were thanked for our playing. The best thing, though, was the number of people who came up individually and told us how much they enjoyed the music in such an emphatic way. I don't think we've ever had so many people comment so enthusiastically and I think playing such a variety of music kept things fresh and interesting.

Because the program was designed for a specific event, it was similar to creating plans for music therapy sessions. Most music groups are one trick ponies entertaining with one genre for an entire event. Our goal was to generate and facilitate a convivial atmosphere to put people in the mood to donate - not to be the focus of the event. 

My takeaway from this performance is that creating a program that's more like a menu for a nicely thought out meal than a simple list of pieces in a single genre can lead an audience to feel they're hearing something fresh and especially created for them. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Wagner as Fungus

Thomas Adés, a composer, has this to say in an interview with Tom Service:

Ades:  It’s too psychological.  I’m thinking of The Ring more than Tristan, there’s an awful lot of psychology in it which I find tedious. And naive, in a sort of superficial way. I mean, so much of Parsifal is dramatically absurd, which would be fine if the music was aware of the absurdity, but it is as if the whole piece is drugged and we all have to pretend that it’s not entirely ridiculous. And it seems to me that a country that can take a character as funny as Kundry seriously, this woman who sleeps for aeons and is only woken up by this horrible chord, a country that can seriously believe in anything like Parsifal without laughing, was bound to get into serious trouble.

Service:  You’re obviously not convinced by the music?
Ades: I don’t find Wagner’s an organic, necessary art. Wagner’s music is fungal. I think Wagner is a fungus. It’s a sort of unnatural growth. It’s parasitic in a sense – on its models, on its material. His material doesn’t grow symphonically – it doesn’t grow through a musical logic – it grows parasitically. It has a laboratory atmosphere.
I found this over on Vukutu, a blog I discovered some time back clicking on the name of a commenter on Kyle Gann's blog.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Voice Diary

Here in the past 6 or 8 months my sense is that my singing has gotten a lot better. When I've sung around other people there have been a few spontaneous positive comments that suggest that what to me seems a tremendous shift is at least big enough others can hear some difference. Here are a few things I think are contributing to the improvement:

  • I did not begin to sing until in my 20's when I began playing guitar, and my guitar playing was always stronger. What's dawned on me lately is that my guitar playing was leading my singing, rather than the other way around. Most conspicuously, I was laying into the down beat strum on the guitar to such an extent the syllable sung on those beats was getting covered up. Lately I've been just very lightly strumming on the downbeats and letting my voice learn how to lead. There's definitely some brain rewiring going on, because not paying attention means the old habit creeps back in.
  • Listening back to recordings has made me cringingly aware of how my affectations were suffocating the poetry and music. I was so caught up in trying to convey how wonderfully artistic my stylings were, there was a lot more ego than artistry on display. Now I'm trying to just sing the song - letting all the consonants and vowels come alive and the phrases more naturally spring from the words, chords and rhythms.
  • I've been giving songs I've sung for 40 years a rest and working up more new ones so as to stay out of the old ruts. Exploring new pieces makes it much easier to try new ways of singing.
  • Back when Dietrich Fischer-Diekau passed away I clicked on a video of him singing and noticed that he sometimes tilted his head down and that made me realize I'd always assumed looking straight forward or tilting one's head up a bit was the best way to sing. Tilting it down a bit changes the way the sound feels in my head. There's the sense it's resonating more fully up there - and it also changes the musculature around the throat. Both those effects give me the sense of having more tools to work with to create a good sound.
  • Brass players sometimes use the cliché, "let the air do the work", and that's sort of the feeling I have now when the singing is going well, that I'm not forcing or making it happen, but simply letting it happen. Rather concentrating on projecting sound, I'm more focused on singing expressively, syllable by syllable, phrase by phrase.
  • Playing the horn has given me a much deeper nonverbal appreciation of phrasing and its connection to breathing. Just to play a phrase on the horn, you have to keep the energy level up throughout. For me it's harder to simply "phone in" notes on the horn as I sometimes feel I do with the flutes, and that in turn made me aware of how from time to time I've been just sketching in phrases with my voice, rather than giving full support to every syllable and pitch.
  • For years and years my singing was either in day rooms in psych wards and nursing homes or leading music therapy groups in closed classrooms for emotionally disturbed children (and never with a mic). In both cases volume and projection were of paramount importance. Now I'm more often singing with pro level players and sometimes with a mic and it's a totally different environment and allows for a more nuanced approach.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Epigenetics and Schizophrenia

Arts & Letters Daily recently linked this long article on schizophrenia, which for me was a trip down memory lane, as it discusses the history of what the experts have said about its causes. This is what they thought back when I first started working on psych units in the 60's:

The science mostly blamed the mother. She was “schizophrenogenic.” She delivered conflicting messages of hope and rejection, and her ambivalence drove her child, unable to know what was real, into the paralyzed world of madness. It became standard practice in American psychiatry to regard the mother as the cause of the child’s psychosis, and standard practice to treat schizophrenia with psychoanalysis to counteract her grim influence. The standard practice often failed.

Then there came the idea drugs could fix it all:

Psychoanalysis and even psychotherapy were said to be on their way out. Psychiatry would focus on real disease, and psychiatric researchers would pinpoint the biochemical causes of illness and neatly design drugs to target them.

That hasn't worked either, and here's a summary of the current thinking:

Yet the outcome of two decades of serious psychiatric science is that schizophrenia now appears to be a complex outcome of many unrelated causes—the genes you inherit, but also whether your mother fell ill during her pregnancy, whether you got beaten up as a child or were stressed as an adolescent, even how much sun your skin has seen. It’s not just about the brain. It’s not just about genes. In fact, schizophrenia looks more and more like diabetes. A messy array of risk factors predisposes someone to develop diabetes: smoking, being overweight, collecting fat around the middle rather than on the hips, high blood pressure, and yes, family history. These risk factors are not intrinsically linked. Some of them have something to do with genes, but most do not. They hang together so loosely that physicians now speak of a metabolic “syndrome,” something far looser and vaguer than an “illness,” let alone a “disease.” Psychiatric researchers increasingly think about schizophrenia in similar terms.

I'm linking the article because in the penultimate paragraph there's this about epigenetics, a new field of study that looks to reframe how we think about genetics and the ways in which we end up being who we are.

In part, this backlash against the bio-bio-bio model reflects the sophisticated insight of an emerging understanding of the body—epigenetics—in which genes themselves respond to an individual’s social context. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012


A while back I linked to a review of Jonathan Lehrer's book Imagine because it nicely laid out some of the limits to what brain imaging can tell us. (Since then, it's come out that Lehrer's writing has more problems than simple exaggeration.)

This post over at Reason points to an even tougher critique of pop neuroscience.

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows......
My sense of it is that while brain imaging doesn't tell us nothing, it doesn't tell us as much (so far) as some people think. What's exciting to me is that music is often used as a tool to explore brain imaging. That in itself is a step up from 30 years ago when any discussion about how music affects us was mostly intuitive and anecdotal, rather than empirical. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Music(al) Stretches

Sound and time are the two primal ingredients of music, and a word we use for each is rooted in the act of physically stretching something. 

Tone comes from Middle English: from Old French ton, from Latin tonus, from Greek tonos 'tension, tone, from teinein 'to stretch" -  Oxford American Dictionary.

Pace comes from Middle English: from Old French pas, from Latin passus "stretch (of the leg)', from pandere "to stretch'. -  Oxford American Dictionary.

Stretching is something the human body does all the time, from waking in the morning to standing on tiptoes reaching for a top shelf, so we all have a built in somatic sense of some stretches being easy and others being extreme and everything in between. 

The most deep seated stretching we do is extending and relaxing the diaphragm with every breath. We do it one way when we're relaxed, and another when we're anxious. 

Since it's my contention that a lot of music's power to move us is due it its encoding physical gestures (and associated feelings), I feel the ways in which music can mimic physical stretches (and associated feelings) has a lot to do with the feelings a piece of music might evoke. It's so easy to get caught up in the surface issues of music making, we can sometimes forget there's this deeper gestural substrate that's communicating to an audience in a mostly non-conscious way.

A key component of physical stretches is that they always have an arc from not being stretched to being fully stretched and back again. You can't make yourself stop breathing and you can't hold a body stretch forever. So besides the degree of a stretch at it's fullest, from barely stretched to full or over extension, there's the way each stretch builds to a peak and then relaxes.

"Tension and release" is a phrase often used in talking about music, and for me, understanding that in the context just laid out gives it a richer meaning. 

"Balance" is another word often used in talking about music making, but I've never really liked it because I always get the extremely two dimensional image of scales tipping one way or another, whereas stretching is complex and our sense of it springs directly from our proprioception.

I often ask students if they've ever been around someone who has lots of interesting things to say, but whose voice is so off putting it's hard to pay full attention, -  that's the substrate I'm talking about. If their voice tone suggests either a string stretched to the breaking point or barely tuned up to pitch, and if the pacing is either to fast or too slow, the words they say will may not register as well as they might. 

On the other hand, if the gestural substrate of your music making matches up well with what you're trying to express, there's a much better chance of connecting with an audience.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gann on Satie

I recently had a back and forth with Kyle Gann about his new book and about Erik Satie down in the comments of this post and want to save it here:

LS - Very belatedly I’ve just read 4’33″. What a terrific piece of writing. Your gift for writing about music is truly remarkable, and that deft explanation of Buddhism flows naturally and clearly. You’ve mentioned having a populist strain in your music and that’s also very evident in 4’33″ as it seems as good a read for the non-specialist as the specialist.
You’ve often mentioned the importance of Satie, so the bit about him was very helpful in understanding how you situate his work. If you’re ever casting around for something more to write about, I’d snap up a book like this on him in an instant. I’m deeply affected by playing some of his pieces (Ogives & Crossed Up Dances), but can’t shake the feeling the reasons I enjoy his work are probably different from yours.
Another small point about 4’33″ – my compliments to the book designer. At first I thought the slightly larger font filling up the slightly smaller page was unusual, but quickly adjusted and found it made the reading very easy on the eye.
KG replies: Thanks all round. Writing about Satie would be a blast, and, for research purposes, I can actually bring back my three years of high-school French when I’m motivated. But I’m not sure what I could add to what’s out there aside from my own idiosyncratic enthusiasm.
  • LSIs there one Satie book/article out there you’d recommend? How about a blog post sometime briefly delineating your “idiosyncratic enthusiasm”? Are his harmonies merely misguided antiquarianism and whimsy or are they something new under the sun? Is there anyone else’s music which can induce similarly pleasant, mysterious, moody reveries with such seemingly simple structures? What do you think he was trying to do for audiences? Is the piece Vexations the single most important thing he did in terms of foreshadowing what happening now? Your microtuned version of that was a ear opener – do you think that’s where he was headed? Is he mostly dismissed or passed over because of the comparatively slight output or is it that it’s not complex enough for specialists to deconstruct, so unworthy of their attention? Sorry to go on – but his music gets to me like nobody else’s and your mentions of him over the years have always made me wish you’d said more.
    KG replies: Wow, that’s more than I can answer. What I like most in Satie harmonically is, I think, a kind of postmodern approach to tonality; no matter what series of chords you drift through, a sudden V7-I will satisfy the ear that you’re in some key or another. For me the Pieces Froids, Gnossiennes, and Three Love Poems point to late 20th-century music more clearly than Vexations does; and, of course, Socrate, which could have been written last week and remain just as amazing. And I think most composers dismiss Satie because education makes composers stupid, and infects them with horrible neuroses about being profound and macho, so that they remain forever too immature for the real profundity of Satie’s humor – since you asked. But don’t tell anyone I said that, they hate me enough already.
    Oh, and while there are several OK biographies, the book you’ve got to get is Robert Orledge’s Satie the Composer, which really analyzes his music.

Gann on Cage

Kyle Gann's No Such Thing As Silence - John Cage's 4'33'' is the most well written book I can remember reading. So often in books coming from academia I can sense the stack of note cards the author has spent years assembling and then dutifully plows through. 

In his piece The Planets there are narrative arcs, but he uses an astonishing array of musical ideas to get them across and it's the same with his prose style. Different chapters and sections use different ways of writing to convey deeply thought out ideas so freshly it's as though he just came up with them. The fact that there's probably nobody more conversant with the music of the 20th century means that even in talking about details he's illuminating.

I couldn't put the book down and on finishing it found myself greatly refreshed. Besides presenting the info really well, the way he gets you to think about it all limbers up the mind.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Audience Reactions

Performing for audiences is not the same thing as leading regular music therapy sessions. Working with groups on a weekly basis means getting to know them very well, both as individuals and as a group. There can be turnover in membership, but it tends to be slow and the group's identity remains stable and you get a good feel for how things are going to go.

With audiences it's like meeting a new person every time and you can never be sure what the chemistry will be, and often it seems the die is cast within the first few moments. I was reminded of this reading a post of Terry Teachout's talking about the first performances of a play he's written.

The most interesting part of seeing the play performed several times in a row has been the chance to see how different audiences react to it. When I wrote "Satchmo at the Waldorf", I never imagined that anybody would find it amusing--I expected it to get no more than a half-dozen laughs--and when Dennis Neal and Rus Blackwell staged the show in Orlando last fall, I was astonished to discover that the first two-thirds of the script played like a comedy. Much the same thing is happening in Lenox, albeit with the same wide variability of response that I first observed in Orlando. I suppose the best way to put it is that some audiences receive Satchmo at the Waldorf as a serious comedy and others as a funny drama. What's more, I can tell within a minute and a half of the beginning of the show which way it will be received on any given night.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Brain Wiring and Perception

I'm mostly linking to this article because I'm a little red/green color blind and there's a certain subset of people who will quiz me to no end about how I see things. Besides now being able to say there's a chance I see Van Gogh's paintings just as he did, the illustrations here do a great job of demonstrating what's going on with color blindness.

While I've never had my hearing tested, my sense is that I don't hear bass lines as strongly as most people do. I also know people for whom high pitched sounds, that don't bother me, are somewhere between irritating and painful. 

The point is that you're making a mistake if you assume everyone is seeing or hearing exactly the same things you are because we're all wired a little differently, so even at the perceptual level - before associations come into play - we inhabit slightly different worlds.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Music and Touch

That music touches us is more than a turn of phrase. I think most people have at some time or other physically felt the pounding of bass instruments and drums. Our ears "feel" sound waves in their specialized way and the rest of our body can feel some sounds in a non-specialized way.

A famous exponent of this idea is Evelyn Glennie.

Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. This does not inhibit her ability to perform at the international level. She regularly plays barefoot during both live performances and studio recordings in order to "feel" the music better.

Glennie contends that deafness is largely misunderstood by the public. She claims to have taught herself to hear with parts of her body other than her ears.

In this recent story about a young man getting some new hearing aids and fully hearing music for the first time, there's this detail in one of the photo captions:

Chapman prefers to listen to music on his bed with his foot on the bass amplifier to help him hear the music, through touch. Chapman claims the experience of hearing music for the first time ignited a new sensation in his brain, much like a first kiss.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Power of Music

This wonderful video has popped up in several places. I first saw it over at Musical Assumptions 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Families of Musicians

This NYT story involves something called "inherited memories" and says this about epigenetics:

There are scientific studies exploring whether the history of our ancestors is somehow a part of us, inherited in unexpected ways through a vast chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the heart of the field, known as epigenetics, is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents — what they breathed, saw and ate — can directly affect us decades later.

If this idea turns out to be right, it would help explain families like the Bachs.

It would also further convince me that people growing up in musical households where music is a second language will never be able to appreciate what it's like to come to music making on one's own outside the home and later in life. To my mind, so much that natural musicians assume - have in their genes, know without learning - has to be approached very differently for people without that advantage.

Friday, August 10, 2012

That Libet Study

I've mentioned the study by Benjamin Libet talked about in this article because it suggests there's more going on in our brains than we're conscious of when we make decisions. As it almost always does in neuroscience, followup work suggests things are more complicated than first thought, and that those who have pointed to the Libet study as an indicator free will doesn't exist are going to have to reconsider their view. If you frame the issue, though, simply as our not being fully conscious of how we make decisions - that still holds. 

According to Seth, when the volunteers in Libet's experiment said they felt an urge to act, that urge is an experience, similar to an experience of smell or taste. The new model is "opening the door towards a richer understanding of the neural basis of the conscious experience of volition", he says.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Advances in Music and Healing

This WSJ article is the current high water mark of how far the idea of using music as a therapeutic agent has come, at least as far as I'm aware. At lot of hard science is proving out various ways of using music to heal. Back in 1980 when I became a Registered Music Therapist (a credential that will cease in less than 10 years), I felt this kind of increased understanding of the healing powers of music would come, but that it would take longer than it has. 

Having followed the news on this front for over three decades, my sense is that a critical mass of info has been developed and that there's been an acceleration both in what we're learning and in the increasing acceptance of the therapeutic value of music.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Performance Diary

The Kenwood Players recently performed at the annual summer family barbecue and picnic over at James Madison's Montpelier. Thanks to my cousin Ada and her husband Ed for taking these photos and passing them along, and to the Montpelier Foundation for granting permission for me to put them up on the blog.

The threat of rain moved the event from the back yard of the mansion to the Grand Salon in the Visitor's Center. While people were gathering four of us played some music from the time of James and Dolley Madison. We started out with flute, alto flute, clarinet and drum playing selections from Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. While people were getting their barbecue I switched to guitar and we played Mrs. Madison's Minuet and Mrs. Madison's Waltz, both of which were originally written for the piano. More info on the music of the Madison era is here.
I'd asked brothers Don and Bob (a docent at Montpelier) to help us out by singing some of the period songs and here's a nice shot of them doing that.
Here's a shot of the group during our second set. You can see the little monitor speakers, which were all the amplification we needed indoors. The most important thing they do is to let the players hear the guitar. I use them even in small churches, because when I'm out in front of the group the guitar is hard for them to hear.
In this photo you can see a little condenser mic which is meant to be clipped onto an instrument, but works very well clipped onto a music stand. It reinforces my voice just enough that I don't have to strain to project when in the lower register.
Here's a shot of Ed doing the sound for us. We used that larger condenser mic for the period vocals by Don and Bob, and for announcements. The Mackie mixer just has that mic, the guitar, my vocal mic and a mic for the harmonica (which one of the tuba players used on a few tunes) running into it and going out to the monitor speakers. Having Ed (who for years ran the TV studio for WETA up in Washington) adjusting those levels throughout the performance was a great help. We were loud enough people could hear us, but could chat with others without having to yell. 
Here's a shot taken between numbers that nicely captures our mood. We had a wonderful time.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Current Arrangements

Last Sunday, after the Kenwood Players performed some of the 18th and early 19th century music discussed in a previous post, we moved to some more contemporary fare in a second set. After starting out with the Playford dance tune "The Richmond Ball" as a transition piece, we played the following numbers that I've arranged for us.

Hello, Dolly

Pink Panther
Deep River Blues (the Doc Watson tune)
Hey, Good Lookin'
This Land Is Your Land
Georgia On My Mind
Tuxedo Junction
Ain't She Sweet

We had prepared, but didn't get to:
Lets Twist Again
The Saints Go Marchin' In

We closed the set with four Dixieland jazz tunes using standard arrangements.

In my arrangements there's always a bass line for the Eb tubas, which are more agile than big Bb tubas, but less so than a string bass. Whenever possible there are little syncopations and walking turnarounds to catch the audience's ear.

For basic harmony I'm playing either banjo or guitar. For the instruments not playing the melody there are harmony notes on a middle staff. Those pitches are usually just pitches in the chord or in simple thirds with the melody.

A primary characteristic of these arrangements is that we don't decide who plays what line until a performance is in view. A founding principle of the Kenwood Players is the recognition that not everyone will be able to make every performance and I'd rather make adjustments among the available players than call in someone at the last minute.

That really paid off for this performance because neither of our trombone players could make it, and while I really missed hearing that tenor middle of the sound, every tune came off well and got a good response.

The key to all this working, besides my having to write up a sheet of road maps for each tune for different performances, saying who plays what when, is that the players can elaborate and improvise on the bare bones I've given them for both the melody and harmony. Over and over at our performances I get the sense audiences are picking up on and enjoying just how much fun we're having making the music and that the improvisatory spark needed to make these simple arrangements come alive has a lot to do with that. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Music, Fiction & Apprehension

A recent post of Kyle Gann's, Literature as a Mirror, along with the extensive comments, is  wonderful conceptual exploration of music and fiction and group think. I've reread it a number of times and have yet to keep all the thoughts it triggers in any kind of tidy bundle. For now just want to bookmark it and paste in my comment.

This is an amazing post and discussion, full of idea boxes to unpack. I am as in agreement with your basic argument as my general unfamiliarity with new music and fiction allow. I’ve been happy to leave *most* of it outside my sphere of interest ever since majoring in English back in ’71 and getting a whiff of what was coming down the line. What you’re calling sophistication has always come across to me more as pretentiousness, and in-crowd validation, once I left academia.

But what’s driving this comment is your phrase, “try to expand my means of apprehension to appreciate what was there”. That’s what your language on this blog, and your music, particularly The Planets, has done for me. It’s a very handy phrase for talking about a dimension of art/music/literature that’s not neccessarily present in entertainment.
It also seems a good phrase for talking about the purpose of Buddhist mind training (and a lot of other spiritual endeavors), which is not meant to be mere routine, but a catalyst.
Really glad you’ve kept on blogging for a while!

A Fine Quodlibet

From Wikipedia - 

quodlibet is a piece of music combining several different melodies, usually popular tunes, in counterpoint and often a light-hearted, humorous manner. The term is Latin, meaning "whatever" or literally, "what pleases." 

I first came across the word quodlibet when reading about the Bach family entertaining themselves. In the video below, Elaine Fine's daughter and son put one together. Just watching it brings a smile to my face. Along with everything else, hearing some nice guitar (dobro?) finger-picking takes me back to the 60's when I first learned guitar from friends and things like Peter, Paul & Mary songbooks with Travis picking notated in tablature.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Montpelier Program

This past Sunday the Kenwood Players provided music for an event at James Madison's Montpelier. This is the program (slightly edited) I wrote up for the portion of the evening we played music of the Madison era.

 Music for 
James and Dolley Madison's Montpelier
Sunday July 15, 2012
Summer Family Barbecue and Picnic

The Kenwood Players
Hayley Parrish - Flute
Dick & Maggie Stageberg - Trumpet & Clarinet
Bill Burnside - Alto & Tenor Sax
Crawford Harmon - Tuba
Bill Chapman - Tuba & Mouth Harp
Judy Peterson - Percussion
Lyle Sanford - Alto Flute, French Horn, Banjo & Guitar
Bob & Don Davies - additional vocals
Ed Harvey - audio engineer

Music of the Madison Era
Mr. Madison's March & Mrs. Madison's Minuet
Mrs. Madison's Waltz
This Great World is a Trouble
Four Tunes from The Beggar's Opera
The Richmond Ball
Corelli and Handel
Chester, by William Billings

    This is a collection of tunes that were popular during the time of James and Dolley Madison, a few of which we can be fairly certain they heard performed.

    The arrangements are simply transpositions of the originals into keys friendlier to our instrumentation. Guitar chords have been added, which fills out the harmonies, and the scoring for the wind instruments fills out some harmonies as well. Otherwise the music is as originally published.

    The addition of guitar chords makes improvisation easier. Back in the early 19th century it was still expected that musicians would be improvising from time to time.

    We are not trying to replicate the music of the era in the way in which it would have then been played (Historically Informed Performance). We are, however, trying to bring it alive with our modern instruments.

    In this music's heyday it would have most often been heard when friends gathered to make it themselves, either in the tavern or at home. Perhaps in part for that reason, we've found this music a lot of fun to play.

    We're playing this music as background during the Open House and the picnic, as that's most likely the way it would have been presented in the early 1800's. The notion audiences should sit quietly in the dark had not yet taken hold. Even at operas of the day, the house was fully lit and the audiences socialized, flirted, hobnobbed and politicked throughout the performances.

    The Kenwood Players enjoy playing and performing music in a wide variety of styles, including classical chamber music, 60's rock, Dixieland jazz, big band tunes, country, folk, blues, spirituals and hymns.

Lyle Sanford, Registered Music Therapist

Mr. Madison's March & Mrs. Madison's Minuet
Two Pieces Written Expressly for the Madisons
    Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809) was an English-born musician who spent his formative years in Scotland. A teacher, composer and theater and concert entrepreneur, Reinagle's performances and compositions introduced the piano-forte to American audiences.

    He emigrated to New York but soon moved to Philadelphia where his talents were quickly recognized. He organized concert series, performed frequently on keyboard and violin and was in demand as an instructor.

    In 1792 he joined with Thomas Wignell to build a large 2,000 seat theater that opened in 1794 as the New Theatre. Wignell recruited and managed the players; Reinagle directed the orchestra from the pit and arranged or wrote most of the music for these performances. Over the next ten years the two produced nearly 500 operas, pantomimes, and plays with incidental music. . .

    These two pieces were probably written for a specific performance to which the Madisons were expected to be in attendance. The orchestra would play “Mr. Madison’s March” when Madisons entered the theater and Mrs. Green and Mr. Francis might dance the minuet as an entr’acte or integrate it into one of the two pieces on the bill of the evening.

    According to the New York Gazette (June 2, 1809), Francis’s ”Mrs. Madison’s Minuet” was the “favorite dance at Washington” in the spring of 1809.
- Music of the War of 1812 in America; Dances, Marches & a Love Song; Set II    (The Colonial Music Institute)

Mrs. Madison's Waltz
    The proprietor of the 1812 Music website tells me this is a pirated waltz by Muzio Clementi. It was published in Philapelphia with no composer attribution by "G. Willig", the publisher of "Mr. Madison's March" and "Mrs. Madison's Minuet".

    Clementi wrote music expressly for, and in later life manufactured and sold, the pianos which were replacing the harpsichord in the early 1800's. Reinagle, the composer of "Mr. Madison's March" and "Mrs. Madison's Minuet", helped popularize the piano in America.

This Great World is a Trouble.
Sung by Mr. D'Legard in Jupiter and Europa.
Music by Leveridge. London 1723
- British Union Catalogue of Early Music Printed Before 1800

    Richard Leveridge was a basso whose life (1670-1758) spanned the period from Henry Purcell to Handel: he sang for both men. The incidental music he composed for the stage was heard in the colonies in The Recruiting Officer, The Constant Couple, and Love and a Bottle. The first two are known to have been performed in Williamsburg, and Leveridge's music was also known in the colonies through the Bockham, Watts, and his own two volumes.

    William Byrd II's diary shows that he, and probably other Virginians, were patrons of a coffeehouse kept by Leveridge in London about 1718, at the same period they were attending the theater where he was a featured actor and singer. Like other tavern keepers, Leveridge probably kept instruments available for the use of his patrons. Williamsburg tavern owners maintained the tradition, as the inventories of several of them prove.
- A Williamsburg Songbook, John Edmonds, first edition 1964

Four Tunes from The Beggar's Opera
    As early as 1732, four years after the premiere, The Beggar's Opera was well known to Virginians both through performances and through printed texts of the music. In modern terminology a "musical comedy", it enjoyed unprecedented popularity.
- A Williamsburg Songbook, John Edmonds, first edition 1964

    Its nature is that of a spoken play of low life, with songs interspersed, set to popular tunes of the day - English and Scottish folk-song and folk-dance tunes, London street tunes, a few French airs, and a touch of Purcell and Handel.
- The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy A. Scholes, Tenth Edition 1970

Fill Ev'ry Glass
Air # 19, The Beggar's Opera by John Gay 1728
Fill ev'ry glass, for Wine inspires us,
And fires us With courage, love and joy.
Women and wine should life employ,
Is there ought else on earth desirous?

Packington's Pound
Air # 43, The Beggar's Opera by John Gay 1728
The Gamesters united in friendship are found
Tho they know that their industry all is a cheat;
They flock to their prey at the Dice-box's sound,
And join to promote one another's deceit.
But if by mishap, They fail of a chap,
To keep in their hands, They each other entrap.
Like Pikes, land with hunger, who miss of their ends,
They bite their companions, and prey on their friends.

    "Packington's Pound" is an example of an earlier, traditional tune that goes back at least to 1596, and is supposed to have arisen from an incident concerning Sir John Packington (1559 -1635).

     He constructed a pound (pond; "pound" is now dialect). When it encroached upon a public highway, he impetuously cut the embankment and let the water stream over the countryside; this gave rise to a satirical ditty sung to this air.
- A Williamsburg Songbook, John Edmonds, first edition 1964

Air # 44, The Beggar's Opera by John Gay 1728
Sir, modes of the Court so common are grown,
That a true friend can hardly be met;
Friendship for interest is but a loan,
Which they let out for what they can get.
'Tis true you find Some friends so kind,
Who'll give you good counsel themselves to defend.
In sorrowful ditty, They Promise, they pity,
But shift you for money, from friend to friend.

    It is thought that Purcell may be the author (of the tune) as, in 1689, in John Playford's Music's Handmaid, it appears, with Purcell's name attached, under the title "A New Irish Tune", as a tiny piece for the harpsichord: Purcell also used it as a ground bass in music for a play, The Gordian Knot unty'd, in 1691. The probability seems to be that Purcell was simply using a popular air of the day.
- The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy A. Scholes, Tenth Edition 1970

Lumps of Pudding
Air # 69, The Beggar's Opera by John Gay 1728
A Dance - the finale of The Beggar's Opera

The Richmond Ball
Henry Playford, The Dancing Master, 10th ed.(London, 1698)
    The Dancing Master was issued in 18 editions, beginning in 1650 and ending in 1728. Ultimately the collection was issued in three volumes. The inventory of Robert Beverly, Newland, Spotsylvania County, listed the second volume in 1733.
- A Williamsburg Songbook, John Edmonds, first edition 1964

Arcangelo Corelli
    In his day the violin was superceding the viol and he became one of the first great violinists, violin teachers, and violin composers, enjoying in all these capacities universal fame. Monarchs sought him out, pupils came from all countries, and his music was everywhere played. . . . When he died he was found to have amassed a large fortune, in addition to a valuable collection of pictures. . . . Corelli's name ranks very high in the roll of those who laid the foundations of the present art of instrumental composition and performance, yet his works never range beyond his instrument's third position.
- The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy A. Scholes, Tenth Edition 1970

George Frideric Handel
    Handel's art has not the concentration of Bach's; he is not so thorough. He has been called a 'magnificent opportunist'. Yet there is a nobility in his music, as there was in his presence, and though facile, never trivial. Beethoven has said of Handel, 'Go and learn of him how to achieve great effects with simple means', and Haydn, hearing the 'Hallelujah Chorus' in Westminster Abbey, rose to his feet with the crowd, wept, and exclaimed, 'He is the master of us all'.
- The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy A. Scholes, Tenth Edition 1970

   Thomas Jefferson's inventory of his music library contains many works by Corelli, as well as a few by Handel.

    William Billings was a New Englander who wrote a number of songs that were extremely popular in the Revolutionary era. This tune is said to have been more popular than even "Yankee Doodle" during that time.
When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forced.
Their ships were Shater'd in our sight.
Or driven from our coast.

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and, Cornwallis join'd
Together plot our Overthrow
In one infernal league combin'd.

The foe comes on with haughty stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their veterans flee before our Youth,
And generals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off'ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluias let us sing.
And praise His name on ev'ry chord.