Monthly Archives: April 2012

Concerning Composition

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Play a sample of total serial music in any college music theory class, and you are bound to hear the response “it sounds like what I would have played when I was in second grade.”

Of course, the intellectual profundity of this music goes far beyond anything any second grader could comprehend. Or does it?

I remember what I was like in second grade. If someone handed me twelve colored pencils and piece of blank paper, all twelve colors would end up on that paper. I simply couldn’t stand to let one of the colors go unused. I felt like the number of colors represented the potential amazingness of my artwork, and to not use one meant to not reach that fullest potential.  I was obsessed to the point of being unable to make any aesthetic decision that excluded an available color, even when I recognized the flaw of my own technique.

So, I propose that serialism is more indicative of obsession than it is of genius. Of course, that is not to say that any second grader could compose something on par with Schoenberg. In the same way that a great artist would be able to use twelve colors in a much more significant way than a second grader, so would a great musician be expected to make decidedly better use of a twelve tone row. My contention is not that there is no intelligence in it at all, but that it is inherently a flawed theory based on flawed assumptions. And more importantly, those specific assumptions may be challenged with a more intelligible comeback than “this music is terrible.”

Why didn’t God color his creation with equal parts purple, orange, green, red, brown, pink, yellow, blue, and so on? Perhaps because the flawed theories that so often attract aspiring elementary school artists and twentieth century musicians failed to mislead the divine intelligence that designed our world. Pink petals in springtime and pink streaks above a setting sun delight us for the very reason that they are reserved for such special occasions, yet the omnipresent green of summer delights by the very reason of its prominence.

 It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to realize that a landscape made of equal parts pink and green would lessen the joy of seeing either color.

The actual colors chosen are not important – but this realization about ratios is. In another part of the country, the ubiquitous green of foliage is replaced by the ubiquitous orange of desert rocks. Either way, the important thing is that some colors are accentuated, some are downplayed and others are totally lacking throughout a particular landscape – and this allows us to process and appreciate them with pleasure rather than confusion. In the same way, in some songs it may be the C and the G that dominate the musical landscape, while B, E and D are seen in a more limited context and A flat or C sharp can’t be found. Don’t worry, they will be prominent in a different song!  Some notes are valuable because they form the foundation of the piece, others are valuable because they provide color, and others are reserved for a different musical landscape altogether. If each note is made to be equal, then each note is made to be equally dull.

Recently I heard this catchy tune by Bo Donaldson. It stood out to me and I was able to remember it and look it up later because of how the lyrics lined up with one particular note — see if you can tell which one I am referring to.

Compare that (admittedly not remotely similar tune) to this piece by Anton Webern (Variations op. 27, no. 3)

 

Where does the Eb occur in the first song? Here’s a hint – it is memorable. Seemingly it gets unfair treatment, only occurring a couple of times while other notes get to be heard a lot more. The Eb is treated much more fairly in Webern’s piece. Can you pick it out? Therein is the irony – the Eb that is heard less – but is treated artistically – stays in our ears much better.

 

Now, if you want to spend seven minutes very wisely, check out this video of the Allman Brothers playing In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. There are a lot of colors in their musical palette, but each is still quite sensibly used. Listening to this song is like driving down the highway. The scenes and colors change, but not senselessly. So ought we organize music, at least so long as the goal is to achieve something beautiful. Such is the natural order of things, and, as the old adage goes, it is best not to fix that which is not broken.

ASMR

It has been long known that music can move us in many ways. But, did you know that we can be moved by much simpler and more commonplace things? This is what scientists are calling ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It is often described as getting a head massage without any physical stimulation, rather, the stimulation is auditory. I first experienced this back in high school when I would get home from school and watch Bob Ross (the black afro guy who painted on PBS) who had a really soothing voice and would always instantly relax me. I didn’t know it then, but this is a very common thing. Other triggers are exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns, viewing educational or instructional videos (believe it or not), experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event, enjoying a pice of art or music, watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner, close personal attention from another person, haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back. Youtube is remiss with videos from people doing “soundscapes,” basically I see it as a free head massage. It all goes to show the power of sound!
below I have posted links to a few different types of examples. Not every trigger works for every person (and there is a very small percent of people who nothing works for) I encourage you to sit back in your chair, relax, and then watch the video. See if it relaxes you!

In Honor of Tulip Time Festival

I grew up on the coast of West Michigan, not far from Holland, Michigan.  Each year this quaint town carries on its dutch heritage and traditions through a week-long celebration called Tulip Time Festival.  The city seems to burst with life as everyone prepares for busy streets and crowded window shops. Carnivals, “Carni” foods, fireworks, concerts, art exhibits… you name it, it’s there. Believe it or not, students get a few days out of school due to the high participation in the marching bands, parades, and street performing. Tourists from all over the world come to Holland to see the beautifully bloomed Tulips that line every street corner and park.  Their second favorite attraction: dutch dancers.ImageImageImageImage

Dutch Dancers, or “Klompen Dancers,” wear costumes patterned after the traditional dress of the Dutch Provinces. Each costume is handmade by local seamstresses and carefully inspected before it can be worn in the Dutch Dance performances. The dancers perform traditional group dances to strictly traditional Dutch music played over the city speakers for everyone to hear. Here is a video to demonstrate the traditional music and dance:

Schools get rather competitive when it comes to dancing – each student earns points for their school based on their appropriate attire and dancing technique. There are currently over 1,100 Dutch Dancers.

This is a tradition that will surely carry on for many more years.  This year Holland celebrates 77 years of Dutch tradition May 5-12.

It’s easy!

Back in the day, the only way to listen to music was to go to a concert or to play the music yourself.  Now, music is available everywhere we go.  It’s playing in the background when we go the store, its in our cars, we have it on our computers, and we have it our pockets waiting for us to put headphones in and hit play.  Who needs to pay lots of money to see musicians in a live performance when they can go online and get the music?  This availability of musical entertainment has caused us to lose some of the appreciation we have for music.  Not only is music so easy to access and listen to music, but it is now much more accessible to create music.  There are many different software programs that help us create music faster and more easily.  YouTube is full of tutorials on how to use these programs and how to quickly create music.  This availability of  music writing software and the mentality that anyone can create music easily is one that has in a sense devalued music.  Some people have began to think that writing and creating music is easy and they lose appreciation for complex and original music.  For example, this dub step artist incorporated a tutorial of how to write a dub step song into an actual song of theirs. This demonstrates the attitude of anyone can make electronic music.
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=CJzfTZlEl40

Sorry I could not imbed the video.

Switchfoot

Switchfoot is doing a show tomorrow near me so I thought that I would write a post about them. Switchfoot Is a band based out of San Diego California and has been active since 1996. Switchfoot is fronted by Jon Foreman, lead vocalist and guitar. concerning their name, Jon is quoted saying that it was a surfing term.  “We all love to surf and have been surfing all our lives so to us, the name made sense. To switch your feet means to take a new stance facing the opposite direction. It’s about change and movement, a different way of approaching life and music.” This idea of taking a new approach to life has pervaded their music since the very beginning. Switchfoot is a favorite of both Christian and secular fans, due to their refusal to go with the flow. “For us, it’s a faith, not a genre,” says Jon Foreman. “We’ve always been very open and honest about where the songs are coming from. For us, these songs are for everyone. Calling us ‘Christian rock’ tends to be a box that closes some people out and excludes them, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. Music has always opened my mind—and that’s what we want.” I don’t think Foreman would call his music a ministry, but thats exactly what it is. The band went through a long period where they didn’t do christian based interviews and shows, and even switched their label because the one they were with was only distributing to christian outlets. But switchfoot’s music has been anything but secular. Biblical themes run rampant through their music; songs like “this is your life” ask questions like “are you who you want to be?” The strong implication being that there is something much greater (Christ) out there. Other songs, like “Adding to the Noise” challenge listeners to not become lost in the sea of media, going as far as to suggest that if their own song is adding to the noise, the listener should turn it off. Their most recent album, Vice Verses, focuses on the polarity of life, and the paradox of what living truly means.

Musically, Switchfoot is eight albums in and they are still one of the most diverse music groups in our lifetime. They had a strong indie start with a lot of subtle instrumentation, and moved towards more edgy rock, often having three different guitar riffs at the same time. But they also do justice to the quieter side of music, with soft ballads and slow emotional lyrics. below are a few examples of their songs that I mentioned, and you can always find all of their songs at Spotify.com.

Bibio

Do you like folk music? How about electronica music? If you answered yes to one or both of those questions, then it would worthwhile to listen to an electronic/experimental/folk artist named Bibio (His real name is Stephen Wilkinson). Bibio has compiled several albums, including Vignetting the Compost, Ambivalence Avenue, and Mind Bokeh. I would suggest having a listen at any of these recent albums.

Bibio primarily relies on synthesizers and modified guitar sounds to produce his unique blend of folk style and electronic modification. He has also been known to edit ambient tracks and place them into rhythmic arrangements, which are quite catchy. Bibio stretches the possibilities of meter, melody, and even conventionality for the sake of some interesting, unique sounds.

Here are a few samples of his work:

Sugarette (Ambivalence Avenue). 

Flesh Rots, Pip Sown (Vignetting the Compost). Wilkinson’s folk roots come out a little bit more in this song.

Fire Ant (Ambivalence Avenue). This song particularly showcases his use of edited ambient tracks.

 

It is interesting listening to the progression of Bibio’s work. In some albums his music takes on a more spacey vintage sound, and in other albums he explores the use of droning synthesizers and hip-hop beats. At any rate, he is certainly a modern pioneer of ingenuity and creativity in regards to electronica and experimental folk music—and he does it well.

Up

One of the most amazing things about music is that it has a profound effect on the listener’s emotions. In an instant music can make the listener sad, happy, joyful, content, etc. The soundtracks in a movie are meant to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. I think that a great soundtrack can make or break a movie. The music helps build an emotional connection with the characters. One of the best examples of this I have ever seen is in the movie UP during the scene that shows a couple growing old together.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLprjxFhs8s (sorry it would not let me embed the video, but you should still click on the link 🙂

In under five minutes one goes through the emotions of joy, anticipation, dissapointment, grief, and sadness. The music is a big reason.  The music fits with each scene perfectly. During sad scence it slows down. When things start to look happier the tempo picks up. The music has a thicker texture when it is a happier scene. During the sad scene the texture is very simple and quiet. All of this combines together to make a very emotional scene.

Norwegian Style

About a year ago, one of my friends posted a YouTube link on Facebook of what I thought was a random artist from Norway. Little did I know that a year later he would revolutionize the music I listen to, and become one of my top favorite artists.

Artist Jarle Bernhoft has successfully combined the freedom of soul/funk/R&B with the stereotypical “rigidness” that comes with electronic music.

What separates Bernhoft from every other artist, is his live performance. With the advances in electronic music, a band can make any sound they want within the studio. But in the music world today, a band doesn’t really make money unless they have a successful live show. So what makes Bernhoft’s performance so great?

What makes me so giddy about Jarle Bernhoft’s music and his live performance is his use of looping. Looping is the simple act of taking a recorded piece and playing over and over, adding and layering things on top of it. He has mastered the art of looping in his live performance. Bernhoft has bridged the gap between a full band sound in which he has captured in the studio, and the a one man band with the help of looping.

Unfortunately for me, Jarle Bernhoft spends a majority of his time halfway across the world which prevents me from going to see him live… But I am still very satisfied and more than impressed with the music that I now own, and the performances that are on the internet.

I strongly urge you to check him out! Get ready to be impressed!

 

This is one of his most popular songs, “C’mon Talk”, which displays his passion, soul, and talent in music.

Music Notation Software and DAW (digital Audio workstations) software and how they are both helping and hurting the music industry.

There is virtually no song or piece of music that is produced in the modern world without the assistance of some kind of electronic device along the way. This could be from making the score of the music to the recording process and mixing of the music. This has affected every genre of music.

Some of the good things about computer software being used to compose music is people are now able to make clean looking scores that everyone can read. Many years ago, before the time of printers and computers, composers like Mozart and Bach had to write down each note of the score by hand. Even composers of the modern era had to copy music this way. Printing was expensive and if you wanted to get your music out there you had to make do with what you had.

DAW software has also allowed composers to hear instant mixes of their pieces and also to play with the balance and tone of different instruments to create the mood or effects of a piece. It also allows them to edit out mistakes and bad pitches and so forth.

There can be problems with this, however, one can be the luxury of having instant playback. When the introduction of MIDI came about many composers did not like because it hindered their ability to be able to just read scores like a book and know what was going on. They could just listen to the MIDI and hear it instantly without the need to play it on the piano or just think about it in their head while looking at the notes on paper. It hindered their ability to try to interpret the music aurally.

Another way that electronic assistance can hinder musicians and composers is that it gives them a desire for the music to have good recording quality and also precise timing. This mean no mistakes. This hinders the live performer because they are now under a different kind of pressure then before. People in the audience many have heard the piece of music they are about to play and already have an expectation of how it should be. If they make a mistake some may not think it as good of quality.

As for my opinion I think that if a musician makes some mistakes it shows that they are a real person and that they are also a musician. They need to be able to add their own expression to the music as well. That is what music is, art. The composer writes it for musicians to play and add their own interpretation of the piece as well. Music is unlike most art in that it is collaborative in the manner.

Furthermore, Music notation software and DAW can be used as tools for composers, but they should also be aware of some of the hindrances as well. Music should still be art even through these tools. MIDI is only an example of precision. It is non-emotional. The musician is what brings the music to life.

For more information on this topic, please visit these sources:http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/How-does-using-music-notation-software-affect-your-music-Robert-Morris/http://www.zaft.org/gordon/mse596s/music.html

The Post Modern Affections

Plato and Aristotle believed in a concept called the “affections”, or the idea that outside forces (most specifically music) can affect people internally.  Although this concept is centuries old, it still holds true today.  An excellent example of this is movie soundtrack music.  Why is there music alongside a film?  To improve the experience.  For example, watching someone fall to his or her death in silence, is sad and scary.  On the contrary, add some brass blaring, passionate strings, helicopter blades, and a blood curdling scream, and the scene becomes heart wrenching and haunting.  On a lighter note, take the “Muppitt Movie.”  Without the the joyful jingles in the background, the foreground scene would not be that enjoyable.  it would simply be a couple of people skipping down a street, big deal.  Have you ever thought about why that is; how you are affected by this music and these scenes?  I thought about this just a mere week ago when I attended a showing of the new release “The Hunger Games.”  On the way to the theater, I sang and danced in a car with friends; we laughed our way through the front doors.  However, once the movie began, I became fearful, then heartbroken, then angry, momentarily happy, and at the end I was left with a feeling of longing and desire for closure.  Following the movie, I was quiet and pensive, attempting to process and deal with the scenes I had just “witnessed.”  How often do you find yourself in that very same place I was?  We are so quickly drawn in to the emotion of the movies exactly the way producers, actors, videographers, directors, composers and actors want us to be; and a big part of that is the music.  Even 1:30sec trailers have the ability to take us from anger to laughter, from boredom to intrigue.  We allow ourselves to internally experience emotions and even beliefs in unhealthy extremes-all for the sake of entertainment.  I must step into the shoes of Plato and Aristotle for a moment, and caution you to count the cost.  Music can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse.  Start asking yourself how it is affecting you, and why you feel the way you feel?  It is a dangerous road we walk on by choosing to allow exterior conditions to decide our internal processes.