Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

Monday, March 05, 2012

Music I Enjoy: Sibelius Symphony No. 4

Jean Sibelius is another of my favorite composers. His work is a departure from Beethoven's -- less formal, more organic. In his symphonies, the music just evolves from the beginning to the end, unlike the more formal structure of Beethoven's symphonies.

My favorite symphonies are the second, third, and fourth. The second and third are fairly popular, but the fourth is under-appreciated, in my opinion.

Perhaps this is because it is so dark and stark. I readily concede that it is. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is certainly mine. This symphony has been played orders of magnitude more than everything else on my iPod. It is perfect for writing papers -- it keeps my emotions occupied while my brain works on the papers.

One commenter on the YouTube video that I link to for this said:
If there ever was a man foolish enough to say that despair cannot be sublime, by the time this symphony hits 1 minute and 10 seconds he has been proven wrong.
Take out the male-exclusive pronouns, and I could not agree more. It is a piece of beauty drawn from despair.

The symphony begins with a slow movement (unusual for a symphony). It starts with a cello/bass/bassoon dirge, and eventually a solo cello rises above. This movement sets the mood for the entire symphony: slow, stark, and dark. More of the orchestra joins in: first the violas, then the second violins, and finally the firsts -- and the volume rises as more instruments join. At the 2:15 mark, when the strings cannot get any louder, the horns and then the trumpets join in. This characterizes the entire movement -- a series of swells of sound, very beautiful, but slow, stark and dark.

Even the second movement, which is in a fast tempo, leads right back into slow, stark, and dark for the third movement (my favorite movement, and the focus of this post). The third movement parallels the beginning of the piece, with sustained cello/bass, but a flute solo to start. The flute passes the melody off to the clarinet, then it goes back to the flute, and the cellos and basses begin to imitate the lines of the flute.

We get a small taste of the melody that will be the climax of the piece when the horns enter at the 1:16 mark, but the first substantial preview is initiated by the violas beginning at about the 2:43 mark. At 4:30 it appears again in a slightly more developed form played by cellos under string tremolo. But it gets interrupted by a reprise of earlier themes. The cellos and basses bring it up again at about 5:32, with a poignant cello solo, and we again get thrown off by reprise of earlier themes. The next time it appears is at the 6:45 mark, and it is a much bigger exposition. At this point we can hear it in depth. It begins at the lowest range of the cellos and rises 6 octaves while swelling to fortissimo, before diving back down to the depths and pianissimo, and returning to the original opening theme.

At the 8:30 mark, we have a major theme under which the climax melody, played by the cellos, serves as accompaniment. Finally, at the ten-minute mark, it is the beginning of the big climax. Violins, viola, and cello play it in unison. The melody rises almost 3 octaves and the volume rises to fortissimo until the highest point is reached, and a swift decrescendo down to almost nothing.

For the remainder of the movement we have a sustained focus on the pitch C-sharp. There is a lot of dissonance and resolution and dissonance again, passing from flute to clarinet to first violin to second violin to cello to pizzicato bass, until everyone ends up on the C sharp and just fades away.

The fourth movement starts at C sharp. It is a necessary semi-resolution of the despair of the third movement, and has some beautiful moments in it, my favorite being the theme that begins at about the 2:48 mark and returns at about the 4:25 mark. In this particular recording, the coda (last part) is interpreted a lot differently than I had ever heard -- extremely slow, but perhaps more like it's intended, as if to say that there's no escape from the stark and dark. Although, if it were all up to me, I wouldn't even be trying to escape.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Music I Enjoy: Beethoven's 9th Symphony

In this series of posts, I've already discussed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony is equally famous. Everybody's heard the "Ode to Joy" -- and you may have even sung it a few times in church (it is a hymn in the Methodist hymnal at least). The final movement with the chorus is superb, to be sure, but I'd like to focus on the first two movements.

The first movement begins with an interval of a fourth (A and E). This is the (inverted) scaffolding of a chord -- the top and the bottom, but not the crucial middle note that tells you whether this is a major or a minor chord. He hangs onto this fourth, accentuating the two notes with violins ascending and descending the scale on those two pitches only, for half a minute. I love the tension this creates -- what is going on? Is this going to ever resolve?

Yes! It does resolve at that point, into D minor, which is fascinating because it is not entirely expected -- those starting notes suggested A minor or A major (although, A minor is a secondary chord in the key of D minor, so it's related). There's a little exposition of a melody, for another half minute, until we get back to another series of fifths, this time D and A. And this time, it resolves into B-flat major, but soon modulates across keys and into a fairly lengthy melodic section mostly in a major key, a break in the storm.

But at the 4:45 mark, we return to the fourths, this time resolving into a series of chords crescendoing into the exposition of a melody derived from the fourths. I really like the part beginning at about 6:23, where the violins alternate between G's -- one the lowest note they can play, and the other two octaves above, and this is then echoed by the woodwinds and brass when the violins take over the melody. Beginning at about the 7-minute mark, a sense of urgency is created in the texture of the piece by strings playing triplets (in the background), which creates an asymmetry in the music. The motion continues, culminating in a series of fortissimo D-major chords beginning at the 8:57 mark, changing to D minor at about 8:45, and recapitulating the melodies we heard throughout the movement. It ends in a typical Beethoven fashion, with a recapitulation of the first melody and a whole lot of D-minor chords.

My favorite movement in the entire symphony is the second movement, the scherzo. Apparently Beethoven was widely criticized for not following the standard form for symphonies, so he wrote this movement as a response to that criticism. The scherzo takes an A-B-A form: scherzo-trio-scherzo. It is in three (as scherzos should be), but with the fast tempo (prestissimo!) and syncopation, it sounds as if it's in quadruple time at times. Take that, critics!

It begins with the same melody* as the first movement, punctuated by a timpani. Then it goes into a fugue, started by the violins, joined by the horns and the rest of the string section and eventually the whole orchestra. We first hear the syncopation at about the 16:45 mark of the recording I've linked to, and in fact the harmony sounds backward in a way when we get to 16:52.

I love the way the timpani is used just like another instrument, in the 17:45 range -- it is identical to the contributions of all the rest of the instruments. And the music rises to a fortissimo statement of the melody beginning at about 18:15.

The trio section is introduced by the woodwinds at about 19:37. It is a swift departure from the original melody -- in major, and seemingly in quadruple time. It is a pleasant and peaceful break from the relentless minor melody. Until, of course, it returns at 22:10. The trio tries to reassert itself at about 25:38, but soon gets squashed by the melody from the first movement to round off the movement.

* If you can call it that! But Beethoven is the master of creating compelling music out of poor melodies.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Musical Memories

My Nissan Leaf came with 4 months of satellite radio for free, and I began listening to the classical music stations every day on my way to work and back.  I got to hear a number of pieces of music that I once loved but had forgotten about.  Because I was getting so much enjoyment out of it, I decided to purchase a subscription after the trial period expired.  I'm still enjoying the classical stations and what they have to play.  Here is a partial list of the music that I re-experienced:

  • On the Beautiful Blue Danube (thus the recent post)
  • Symphony #2 "Romantic" by Howard Hanson
  • Symphony #1 by Gustav Mahler
  • L'Arlesienne Suite by Georges Bizet
  • Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar
  • Overture to Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
  • Symphony #5 by Dmitry Shostakovich
  • Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky
  • Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz

Monday, October 24, 2011

Music I Enjoy: Traumerei

I played at some friends' wedding the weekend before last (these friends) -- and was asked to play Träumerei by Robert Schumann, a lyrical, reflective piece of music.

I had a recording of Joshua Bell (the violinist in the video above) playing the piece, and I listened and listened to him playing it, and even played along as practice.

But, Joshua Bell I am not!  I don't have nearly the skills that he does, mostly because I don't practice nearly as often as he does, and my fingers don't move the way I want them to all the time, because of my ulnar nerve damage.  Luckily, my friends were pleased with my performance (they got what they paid for and then some!).

I really like what Joshua Bell does with the piece though.  I think the flow of his interpretation is perfect.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Music I Enjoy: On the Beautiful Blue Danube

I hate to admit it, but all weekend, this has been going through my head:

That's bad enough, but what is even more shameful is that I've been enjoying it! Yes, it is overplayed. Yes, it is an earworm. But it is kind of fun. It makes me laugh. I love the beginning, preparing you for the imminent arrival of the waltz. It's like a sunrise, with the rays of sun just peeking above the horizon. You watch them get brighter and brighter, until the sun is up and the waltz begins in all earnestness. The ten minutes of music varies enough that it keeps you from getting too bored. There's even a brief minor section. It is definitely a waltz, and makes me want to dance around the house (ONE-two-three ONE-two-three) -- albeit without even a hundredth of the skill of the dancers in this video. Luckily since I am the only one at home I don't embarrass myself.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vinny and the Violin

I was only a little older than Vinny when I started playing the violin.  I had always loved music, and it was a logical next step to sign me up.  I mean, I loved music so much that it was one of the only thing that would soothe me when I got upset.  So it made perfect sense to start creating it on my own.

Vinny recently saw a picture of me at the age of 4, playing the violin.

Ever since then, he has been enthusiastic about learning to play the violin himself.  When we talk about musical instruments, he regularly mentions that he wants to play the violin.

I haven't actively discouraged him from it, but I admit that I am less than enthusiastic about him learning to play the violin at this age.  I think he still needs to be a child, and I don't want to subject him to the kind of discipline that is necessary to learn an instrument yet.

And when he is old enough for it, I am not enthusiastic about the violin as a first instrument.  I think he would be much better served to learn the piano first.  Piano is a useful skill.  There are a lot more opportunities for gigs.  Also, musically speaking, you learn to think about more than just a single melodic line, which is very useful when you play in ensembles or even when you're just trying to appreciate music.  I think a lot of music theory would have come easier to me if I'd had training on the piano.

I also worry about the impact that playing the violin has on a young body.  I know that twisting my left arm into the fingering position on the violin starting at such a young age and for so long contributed to my arm and elbow problems.  I would hate for my son to be disabled as a young adult like happened to me.  He's not left handed, though, so maybe he wouldn't have the same thing happen.

In any case, I won't be signing him up for any lessons any time soon.  He needs to just keep enjoying music for a year or two more.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Music I Like: Gluck's Overture to Iphigenia in Aulis

I first became acquainted with this piece when I was in youth orchestra. I think it may be some sort of standard piece for youth orchestras to play -- it's not too complicated, the first violins never have to go higher than third position, and there are a whole bunch of youth orchestras playing it on YouTube. The video I picked is not bad, but a little rough along the edges.

But I was smitten from Day One. And it has many of my favorite elements in it -- a minor key, surprises, contrasting themes that get combined in ways that you would not expect. It's no wonder I still love this piece even today.

This piece has some surprisingly advanced harmonies for its era -- Christoph Willibald Gluck was a contemporary of Mozart, and you won't hear anything this dark or despairing in Mozart, with the possible exception of Don Giovanni (composed after Gluck's death).

Before I get started describing the music, it might help to know what Gluck was trying to depict. Iphigenia in Aulis is a Greek tragedy by Euripides. Basically, poor Iphigenia gets sent to Aulis to be sacrificed so her father (Agamemnon) can sail his ships to Troy. This piece opens Gluck's opera of the same name, so it has to set the mood for such a sad and somber tale.

The overture begins with a very tragic and slow primary theme, a fifth echoed as an augmented fifth, followed by a descending scale that goes one note below the starting point. At first it's just the upper strings that are playing, but then the rest of the string section gets involved.

At the 1:09 mark we hear the first sign of the second theme. It's markedly different -- we have nearly the entire orchestra playing in unison. Then it breaks off into a fast paced, cheerful melody, leading you to wonder what this has to do with anything?!?! There's a sweet, interlude-like melody we first hear at the 2:08 mark, led by the first violins, too, which leads into a modulation of the second theme into a minor key. This interlude melody reappears at 4:58 and leads to a recapitulation of the second theme back in its original key. Then it's back to the interlude melody before another series of modulations of the second theme, which works its way through several different keys until at 8:47 after ascending two half steps we're dropped off back at the opening theme. At the 9:20 mark the first theme modulates in some interesting ways (augmented chords, minor sixth chords, and the like), as if to further illustrate the tragedy of the situation.

How is this all going to come together at the end, you may be asking yourself. Well, when the original theme takes on some new harmonies (augmented chords and minor sixth chords and the like), those harmonies take the rhythm of the first sign of the second theme (you can hear this in particular beginning at 9:46). This ending was written by Richard Strauss, because in the actual opera, the overture just segues straight into the action (and in fact, the last occurrence of the first theme is the beginning of the singing part of the opera). I actually have a recording of the opera, and the different themes in the overture all occur later in the arias, so Gluck didn't necessarily feel the need to tie it all together so beautifully in the overture. But Strauss definitely put a bow on it at the end.

In stark contrast to my ability to put a bow on the end of this post... just let me end by saying that I hope you enjoy this music as much as I do, some twenty-plus years after I first played in it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Violins and Fungi

Did you ever wonder what beautiful violin music and fungi had in common? No? Why not?

As it turns out, scientists treated wood with fungi to see if they could create wood similar to the wood that Stradivarius used to create the violins that today go for millions of dollars. Please read this article about it, written by a high school student for more details!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Musical Interlude

In November, in an effort to ruin my life, my sister Rachel disagreed with me about Bob Dylan (whose composition efforts I enjoy, but whose performance efforts I abhor). This of course occurred right when I was leaving for a big conference and was too busy to reply. But in the meantime, I've thought a lot about it and decided to formulate a better explanation of what I dislike and why.

Music serves different purposes for different people, but to me, music is kind of an aural riddle, constrained by certain rules, that challenges my mind and influences my emotions. When it's something I like, I listen, my brain is stimulated, and I enjoy it. For example, if I'm in a good mood and I listen to a "sad" song, I enjoy the wave of sadness that contrasts with my baseline emotional level. If I'm in a bad mood, I get pleasure out of commiserating with a collection of sounds that are feeling the same way I am.

When I say rules, I'm thinking of the rules of music theory and musical traditions and conventions. This is of course quite fluid over the course of history, and probably one of the reasons I loathe Baroque music quite as much as I do is that it's too constrained by theory rules. I enjoy Medieval and Renaissance music, however, because while it is constrained by the rules of its day, those rules are so different from modern music theory that it is interesting.

A clever composer/artist/whatever can get away with bending or even breaking certain rules, and I like it. But, there are certain things that to me are non-starters. Bad intonation is one of those things. It distracts from the riddle. All I can think about is how off it sounds. And this is what I dislike so much about Bob Dylan.

There is music from other cultures that contains notes that one could not play on a piano -- quarter tones, which fall between adjacent keys on the keyboard. In the context of that cultural musical tradition, these "off-key" notes do not bother me in the least -- it's part of the setting of the riddle. But when we have a Western artist who is clearly playing by Western rules and then singing notes that do not exist in the context of Western music theory,* this is a dealbreaker for me. I don't perceive it as Bob Dylan bending or breaking the rules of Western music theory -- if he were, I would expect to hear the accompanying instruments also coming out with quarter tones. No, Bob Dylan is just being sloppy, and I don't like it.

* There are cases when quarter tones are used in Western music for emotional effect, such as in Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack for Alien. He's using these "alien" notes to create a disturbing musical background for a disturbing movie foreground. This rule-breaking works in this context. Again, I don't think Dylan is deliberately using quarter tones to create a disconcerting aural environment -- that goes against the context of the words and the rest of the melody that he's singing.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Music I Like: Gipsy Kings

I feel that I owe the Gipsy Kings something after their epic concerts (spanning multiple states and multiple hours!) with special guest singer Rebecca, in my car on the way to and from my sister's house. Those guys kept me awake and having fun despite the flat terrain and the fact that I detest driving.

But also, they're darn fine musicians and composers. You may have heard the ubiquitous "Bamboleo" in the 1990s -- which is a fine piece of music, but I prefer some of their less popular works, which are musically deeper and more complex.

I don't understand a word that they sing, and had they actually been present at our in-car concerts, I'm sure they would have been horrified at what was coming out of my mouth. But to my own credit, had I been able to use my instrument of choice (the violin) rather than my instrument of necessity (nothing like singing to get the lungs pumping and the oxygen flowing) they might have enjoyed themselves.

Anyhow, I have told you many times how much I love a good surprise. I love a piece of music that is clearly going one direction and then veers off in another. The Gipsy Kings are very good at this. Their masterpiece in this way is a piece called "Majiwi," from their album Somos Gitanos.

"Majiwi" begins with a flute playing a sweet, peaceful little melody in C major, which is then reproduced by the solo voice, before launching into the piece as a whole. Here's the awesome thing about this piece. You know that beautiful, peaceful C-major melody that you hear at the beginning? It's the chorus of the song! They take those same notes, but harmonize it differently, for a completely different effect. In this case, we go from C major to A minor. I love it! (And since I am a sucker for minor keys, there's twice as much to like: a surprise, and it's in a minor key!)

The thing I love is that I get fooled every time. I mean, I totally know what's going to happen, having heard this piece hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but nonetheless, I get caught in this thought that a peaceful little melody on a flute cannot possibly be in a minor key. Then, halfway through the song, I find myself thinking, "How could I have ever imagined that this was a C-major melody?!?!" It's a form of cognitive dissonance that only a serious music nerd like me loves.

Another of my favorite Gipsy Kings songs is "Montaña," from Love & Liberté.

It starts out plain and simple, with a guitar playing the melody and the chord sequences that harmonize the melody, as an introduction: not quite a simple I, IV, V, I (A major, D major, E major, A major), because the Gipsy Kings are a little more sophisticated than that, but pretty close. Still, it sounds very comfortable, very beautiful, if a bit plain.

The voice begins the song, and there is a little more texture that joins in: a little rhythm, some more guitars, etc. But it is still mostly quiet and peaceful.

It is not until the 0:45 mark that the action begins. At this point, we hear a change in the direction of the song. We branch out into the minor chords in the A major scale: vi and iii (F# minor and C# minor). This change in mood is amplified by the addition of the electric bass and keyboards. The guitars begin adding ornamentation -- ascending scales harmonizing in the minor key. But the progression works its way back to major -- V, or E major, and makes it way back to the melody in major again, but not before repeating the minor portion.

The progression of the harmonies in the song is kind of mountain-shaped, the way that they do it. There are some chords in there I can't completely identify outright, but the basic sequence goes: I, IV, V, I, vi, iii, IV, V, I. That's probably complete gibberish to most of you, but there is a way that you can play the sequence of these basic chords on a piano and change (usually) only one or at most two notes per chord progression. And in doing so, the bass note (the bottom note played, but not necessarily the root of the chord), rises (like a mountain peak) and then descends. You can hear this at about the 4:20 mark of the above video -- just concentrate on the first note the bass plays per chord sequence.

There are really no Gipsy Kings songs I dislike, but I do prefer some over others. Other favorites include "Tu quieres volver," "Ami wa wa," "Vamos a bailar," "Legende," "Love and Liberte," and "La Tounga." They have some really good instrumentals -- we share the philosophy that the voice is but another instrument, so they use it in addition to guitars, percussion, keyboards, clapping, and many other things. So maybe if one of my vast blogging audience goes out and purchases one of their albums, the Gipsy Kings will forgive me for our in-car concerts, and we can call ourselves even!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Music I Like: Christmas Edition

I may be an atheist, but I still like a lot of Christmas music -- for the tunes and the associated holiday memories, of course!

Something I really like in a melody is when it has an interesting shape to it. Imagine creating a graph, with time on the horizontal axis and pitch on the vertical axis. Songs with melodies that stay close to being a horizontal line can be pretty boring. (I say "can be," because it all depends on what is happening in addition to the melody.)

Some of my favorite holiday songs that have good shapes to them include Silent Night, Joy to the World, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

I've always had a soft spot for Silent Night. It's a very soothing lullaby (which goes well with the sentiments of the lyrics). Here's a graph of the song, almost as described above -- note number on the horizontal axis, and pitch on the vertical axis:

I unfortunately could not figure out how to get it to display this graph with the actual measure numbers on the x-axis -- this is what I get for not using an actual graphing program!

But you can see the general arc of the melody, even if the scaling of the x-axis is not quite right. At the end, we have a climatic rise followed by a climatic drop. The melody hints at this from the beginning -- "Silent night/holy night" is a miniature preview of the last two phrases ("Sleep in heavenly peace/Sleep in heavenly peace"). Likewise the middle previews this: we begin to soar with "Round yon virgin" but come back down to the baseline with "mother and child."

You can see these parallels on the graph: from about 33 on the x-axis to the end is the big finale of the melody. You can see a similar shape at the very beginning (1 to 4, repeated immediately), and in the middle (15 to about 24, also repeated).

Joy to the World takes a different shape -- it's kind of like a V or W shape. The first line ("Joy to the world, the Lord is come") descends an entire octave, the second one ("Let Earth receive her King") comes right back up. Then we have a few descents ("Let every heart" and "Prepare him room"), followed by some ascents, modulating downward (the first two "And heaven and nature sing" lines), followed by the octave-jumping and ultimately descending final phrases ("And heaven and heaven and nature sing").

The grandiosity of Joy to the World is very similar to the final movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which follows the same octave-spanning, V-shaped melodic concept (although the symphony is more like an upside-down V, because its melody ascends first and descends second). But this octave-spanning movement up and down the scale is part of what makes many melodies very grandiose and pompous (which I don't mean in a bad way). Other examples include "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Pomp and Circumstance," and Mendelsohn's wedding march from A Midsummer Night's Dream (a staple of American weddings alongside Pachelbel's Canon).

My favorite movement of my favorite Sibelius symphony -- the third movement of the Fourth symphony -- also uses the (inverted) V-shaped melody spanning an octave, but turns the grandiosity on its head by making it a minor octave rather than a major octave. (I hope to share this symphony with you at some point -- but it is an acquired taste. The first time I heard it I was like, WTF?!?! But I gave it a few more listens and fell completely, head-over-heels in love. It is the leader on play count in my iTunes collection, and by a long shot. This is saying a lot because this symphony is more than a half hour long.)

But I digress.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen has an interesting arching shape to its melody, more like Silent Night than Joy to the World. But what sets this song apart to me is its minor key. I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for something a little surprising or different, and this song does that by being in a minor rather than major key. It is also great fun to harmonize against, because there are so many ways you can go. I have fond memories of playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with my sisters when we were kids -- me on the violin, Rachel on the cello, and our younger sister on the viola or singing. Usually she would be the one to play the melody, while Rachel and I harmonized. Rachel had a good bass line that she would do, and I would tend to try something different every time. Ah, yes. Good times with music!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Music I Like: Mille Regretz by Josquin Des Prez

Josquin Des Prez was a composer from the late 1400s/early 1500s, who is often referred to as "The Beethoven of the Renaissance." This is because Josquin was not only prolific but also had a great influence on the way that music evolved. Josquin is my favorite Renaissance composer, and I plan to share another piece by him in this series at some point.

His most famous composition is "Mille Regretz" -- the lament of one thousand regrets at abandoning one's beloved. It was a popular tune at the time -- you can tell because many people used it in writing church masses, which was the thing to do with popular music at the time. Listen to this recording by the King's Singers:

I chose this recording because it is the most beautiful interpretation of Mille Regretz that I have ever heard. Every time I hear it, I feel those thousand regrets. I love both the melody and the harmony. The rise and fall of the melody evoke the same emotional turmoil as the words do.

The King's Singers have modernized it somewhat -- the dynamics, such as the big crescendo at 0:42 (Jay si grand dueil...), and the phrasing, such as the short pause at 1:25 and the rallentando (slowing down) of the last phrases are additions by the King's Singers. But I really think this goes to show how timeless this piece of music is -- it's still accessible 500 years after it was composed. Josquin was a masterful composer.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Music I Like: Pachelbel's Canon (Sort of)

So, I've been ragging on Pachelbel's Canon all week. And in fact, I do hate Pachelbel's Canon. I'm lucky to now be in my mid-30's, and therefore beyond the age when my friends are having church weddings, so I'm not often forced to endure another performance of that dreadful piece of music.

But, truthfully, there are some really cool things about Pachelbel's Canon. Okay actually, there's only one cool thing about Pachelbel's Canon, and that's its chord progression. The cool thing is that it's a harmonization of a descending major scale. In other words, if you start on the right note, and sing a major scale downward for an octave (i.e., the D two octaves above middle C down to the D just above middle C), your pitches are harmonized by Pachelbel's Canon.

If you listen to the radio, it's just a matter of time before you hear a song that follows the same chord progression as Pachelbel's Canon. In fact, serendipitously, I heard one just last night as I was composing this post in my head! It's Don't Pull Your Love Out on Me, Baby, which was sung by Elvis (both on the radio last night and in the link). Other songs you may have heard that follow this chord progression (with slight variations) include "A Lighter Shade of Pale" and "When a Man Loves a Woman."

But my favorite song that follows this chord progression is one that you've undoubtedly heard but never realized that it was so similar to Pachelbel's Canon. In part this is because this piece descends a minor scale rather than a major scale. (Okay, maybe it's also because you never suspected that Pachelbel's Canon was so pervasive!)

The song I'm talking about is Hotel California.

If you transposed Pachelbel's Canon into a minor key, you could harmonize the verses in Hotel California with it. (The chorus is different.) Try singing the transposed-to-minor cello part along with the Eagles in this video:

I picked the above video because it's the Eagles performing Hotel California live, and I enjoyed watching them have such a great time playing. Listen to their somewhat improvisational introduction, and see when you can recognize that it's Hotel California. Admittedly, knowing the title of the video put me at an advantage, but I recognized it long before the audience caught on.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Music I like: Beethoven's 5th Symphony

I picked Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to share first because everybody knows the first movement. Yes, the first movement is waaay overplayed, but I like it because, well, there's not much music that can stand up to being that overplayed and still be so compelling that I regularly listen to it of my own volition. So hats off to Ludwig van Beethoven for composing such an excellent piece!

What do I like about it? Well, it's not the melody, I can promise you that. I mean, "be-be-be-baaah"... what kind of a melody is that? Not a good one.

In fact, something I really love about Beethoven is that he can take these crappy, almost non-melodies, and just do something amazing with them!

In each movement of a symphony, there's a primary theme and a secondary theme. Here, the primary theme is what opens the movement, and the secondary theme begins at about the 0:49 mark. I've already dissed the primary theme, but to its credit, the secondary theme is a little more melodious. What is Beethoven going to do with these two themes?

He modulates them, changes keys and modes, and generally mixes each one up. At 2:55, the primary theme appears again, this time changed to a slightly different interval. And the secondary theme pops up again too. But the thing he does to combine them is what keeps me coming back for another listen.

At 5:12, he uses the primary theme as a fanfare introduction to the reprise of the secondary theme. He modulates the second theme from C major through a minor key, and beginning at about 5:32 the cellos and basses start playing in the rhythm of the primary theme. And gradually, the second theme takes on more and more characteristics of the primary theme until before we know it, we're back to the primary theme!

I actually like the third and fourth movements of this symphony the best (although I like my scherzo and allegro substantially slower than the videos I've linked to). When I listen to the fourth movement, I feel like I could do anything -- it's just so triumphant and powerful! I love the reprise of the C-minor scherzo theme in the middle of it (at roughly 5:20) -- it's like you have this triumphant feeling, then you see this potential problem, but you know you can overcome it and end on a positive note -- 29 bars of fortissimo C-major chords, to be exact. There's no better ending than that!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Music and Performers

My sister Rachel, in an effort to ruin my life, comments on my previous post:
Seeing the word "composer" there toward the end has me wondering: do you ever like a piece of music because of the performer, more than the composer? People who are really into opera, for example, are often quite picky about which performers they want to hear interpret which pieces. Vivaldi's 4 Seasons is pretty blah to me UNLESS it's Perlman playing it (that's the one we grew up with, I guess, and I prefer his interpretation).

When you get into popular music, the question becomes even more difficult to untangle, I guess. You get people performing their own music, covering each other's music, performing music by professional songwriters, performing traditional songs. There's much more scope for individual interpretation there, and again, a song that may be so-so may get a lift from someone else's touch (or may not - I can't think of a single Beatles cover I like better than the original).

A long way toward saying: sometimes it's not the music that's most awesome, it's the performance.
Sure, a performer can make or break a piece of music, I'll grant you that. Perlman playing a piece is going to sound a lot better than me playing it, because even assuming that it's within my skill level, his interpretation is going to be more nuanced and his execution is going to be better.

There are plenty of cases where the individual(s) performing the piece completely ruins it. For example, I abhor Rod Stewart because his voice makes me want to forcibly remove my eardrums. The Mommas and the Papas have some pretty good songs, but when I listen to their poor intonation I want to reach through the radio and change the record to something else.

Likewise, a good performer can make anything sound good. If I had to listen to Pachelbel's Canon, I'd want to hear it played by somebody good like Perlman, because it would be the best Pachelbel's Canon that it could be.

An example of the cover being better than the original would have to be anything by Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is proof positive that the American Dream is true -- anyone, if they work hard enough, can succeed. Because, lemme tell you, I don't know how else he got to be such a well-known performer. His voice is just miserable -- an unpleasant tone, poor intonation -- he's just terrible! But, he writes really good songs, and for example, Joan Baez singing "Blowing in the Wind" is great (and a huge improvement over him singing it!). Simon and Garfunkel also did a cover of "The Times Are A-Changin" which was far superior to the original.

I could hear the song immediately, but it took me another 20 minutes to remember enough of the lyrics to reconstruct that last title, which brings me to another point that I should have made in yesterday's post: I mostly ignore song lyrics.

It is profoundly difficult for me to remember the lyrics to a song. I'm lucky to remember how to sing the alphabet song with Vinny -- it almost seems like the only reason I can remember it is because I know the alphabet. I enjoy singing to him every night, but I have an extremely limited repertoire of "real" songs that I can sing, because while I know thousands of tunes, I cannot for the life of me remember more than a dozen lyrics. It's kind of embarrassing to admit to this.

To me, the voice is just another instrument. This explains why it's easy for an atheist such as myself can listen to so much medieval and Renaissance music,* which was really centered on Jesus. And why I enjoyed playing gospel music during my workplace's annual black history celebrations. The lyrics hardly register.

That being said, there are some songs with lyrics that have made their way past my incomprehension, which I cannot bear to hear. Those songs include "Hard-Headed Woman" (Elvis' tribute to misogyny), "Under My Thumb" (The Rolling Stones' foray into controlling abuse), and this certain song by some asshole from the 60's in which the lyrics make him sound like a creepy pedophile. And for that last one, since all his songs sound alike, any time he's on the radio I have to change the damn station, because I get the dry heaves every time I hear his voice.

Anyhow, now that I have all that out of the way, next time I promise to actually talk about a piece of music that I like.

* Yeah, it's mostly in Latin, but it's simple enough to translate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Tuneful Tuesday

Before I really get started on specific pieces of music that I like, let me give you an idea of the characteristics I like in music.
  • I like a good melody, which is not to say that it has to be catchy. Catchy tunes are good, but sometimes, they can get a little too catchy and become an earworm, which will make me mad. I like to be able to hear a tune in my head by choice, not necessity.
  • The basic I-IV-V chord sequence, over and over, will make me mad and want to smash things. I like more interesting chord progressions. One of my favorite things is to hear an alternate chord being played, like when I expect a IV but I hear a vi, that makes me happy.
  • I like music that combines two seemingly unrelated melodies into something really interesting. There are a lot of good pieces of music of many different genres that do this.
  • I like music with an interesting texture, meaning I'm not a fan of simple homophony -- music where one instrument always plays the melody, and the others always play the harmony. I like it when the melody is passed from one instrument to another, and when it's not even completely clear what the melody is (such as in the previous bullet).
  • I like an interesting rhythm, but since I'm more of a classical musician, this is not strictly necessary.
  • Actually, none of these are deal-breaking requirements. Some of my favorite pieces of music have crappy melodies, use simple chord progressions, or are homophonic. It's what the composer does with it that makes or breaks a piece of music.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Musical Monday

Something I realized last night was that I have not spent much time on this blog talking about music. I thought I might remedy that oversight starting now!

I am a music afficionado. In fact, it's entirely possible that music, rather than blood, courses through my veins. (Although the mosquitoes do like me an awful lot, so maybe not!)

As a toddler, I was somewhat challenging and emotionally intense, but a surefire way to make me content was to put some headphones on me and play some music. I'd just sit there and listen for hours, which, as a mother, I now find pretty amazing, because there's no way I could get Vinny to sit still that long.

I loved music so much that my mom signed me up for violin lessons when I was 3 going on 4. I studied Suzuki violin through elementary and junior high school, and continued to take violin lessons in high school. I also played in the youth orchestra from the time I was in 6th grade.

In college, I took almost enough courses to get a music minor, and I played in the community orchestra, which I really loved. But at that point, the years of abuse to my arm was beginning to catch up with me.

In grad school, I found a community orchestra and played with them for about one semester, but it wasn't as fun as my former orchestra, and I got busy, and ended up not going back. I played less and less often, which was probably for the better, because my left arm kept getting worse. I had my first ulnar nerve entrapment problem after a particularly long essay exam (yes, even computer scientists can have essay tests; this was the final in a parallel computing class!), and then I continued to have more arm problems, until a particularly long but exciting derivation left me in severe and permanent pain.

But luckily, playing is not the only form of musical expression I had at my disposal. My arms may not work the way I want them to, but I still have my ears! So throughout the years, I've listened to a lot of music.

In college, I bought a fair number of CDs, but when I became a poor graduate student, I was able to borrow a lot of music from the library. This allowed me to broaden my musical horizons without risk.

Classical music is my favorite genre, although I don't like most of the things that your everyday person thinks define the genre, such as Baroque music (e.g., Pachelbell's canon, The Four Seasons, etc.) and Mozart. No, I am a big fan of early 20th century symphonic music, Russian romantic era symphonies, and medieval and renaissance music. There are other pieces I enjoy that don't fall into those categories, but by and large, those are my favorites.

But, I also enjoy a lot of other music. In particular, as a failed liberal elite, I listen to the oldies radio station instead of NPR when I'm driving to and from work. (I hate listening to the news, and when they're not playing the news, NPR plays too much of the aforementioned Baroque and Mozart.) I enjoy a lot of songs from the 1960s and 70s, so it's a good station for me to listen to.

I also enjoy a lot of world music, including authentic folk songs and fusion music that combines traditional ethnic elements with Western musical sensibilities. I always like hearing something new that pushes the boundaries of what I'm accustomed to.

I was thinking I'd start a series of indeterminate length to share with you some music that I like, as well as the reasons I like it. I plan to start with some songs that are probably more familiar (e.g., from the oldies station) and work my way towards obscurity. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Black History Month, Take II

My trusty violin and I have once again joined the Black History Month choir.  This year, however, I got the bright idea to perform something by an African-American composer of classical music.  I knew I had a friend/colleague who played the piano, and the other violinist from last year was interested in playing too.  

So I recruited my piano-playing friend/colleague* to join me and the other violinist in playing some works of music by William Grant Still.  We're playing selections from his "Minatures," which were written for flute, oboe, and piano.  Obviously we're substituting violin for flute and oboe, which mostly works because they have approximately the same range.  But we did make some changes so that I didn't have to spend the whole flute part slicing my fingers on my violin's E-string.

I really like these pieces -- they are settings of American (not U.S. -- the continent) folk songs but they are not just simple and straightforward.  He's got some clever twists and turns in there.

I must admit I'd never heard of William Grant Still until I started looking for music to play, but he was quite a remarkable person -- just read his Wikipedia biography referenced above.  I like his music enough to try listening to one of his symphonies or something.

* This is a danger that friends of mine who also play musical instruments often find themselves in -- this is not the first time I've recruited someone to join a weird musical ensemble.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Mariachi Night

Today was a big day: it was performance night for our Mariachi band. It went really well!

We had a rehearsal in the afternoon in the auditorium. It is in the local high school, but it is no ordinary high school auditorium. The auditorium, along with the rest of the high school, has been recently renovated -- the ribbon cutting ceremony was just last month. The auditorium is bigger than some University venues I have played in, and the acoustics are wonderful.

Then we attended a pre-performance reception sponsored by my employer's international friendship club. I had to leave early because I was asked to speak at the pre-concert discussion of the music. I explained how our group was formed and a little bit about the music to an audience of interested music lovers.

Then, it was time for the orchestra concert. We Scientificos Locos (mad scientists) sat in the audience during the first part of the concert. During intermission we got our instruments and waited back stage while the orchestra played a short piece. Then, we were on stage.

I suffered no stage fright (after all the recitals I've done, this performance was nothing). My fellow Scientificos Locos did not freak out either. We went out there and just had a lot of fun, and thanks to that, we did great. Oh sure, there were a few mistakes, but nothing major. Our enthusiasm more than made up for it. We got a lot of applause when our three pieces were over.

After another piece by the orchestra, the concert was over. As the audience enjoyed some Mexican desserts at the after-concert reception, we got lots of compliments and gratitude for performing.

I had a really good time performing. The only thing I wished was that Jeff and Vinny could have been there. I had some complementary tickets reserved for them, but unfortunately Vinny was too tired and cranky to make it through the concert. Jeff wisely took him home after the pre-concert reception.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Mariachi Update

So my regular readership may recall that I formed a mariachi band. I had been asked to participate in Hispanic Heritage month, and found a book of mariachi music that exactly fit the volunteers -- two violins, a guitar, and an electric bass.

I gave my band members copies of the music quite some time ago, and then created CDs of the music using GarageBand and iTunes. I transcribed the music into GarageBand, one note at a time, exported the songs to iTunes, and made a playlist which I burned onto CDs.

Today was our first practice. It was held at the house of one of our band players, who has a lot more space than I do, and who sometimes reads this blog. (Your house was great! Thanks for hosting us!)

Since before we've added another guitar -- the original guitarist has a grad student who plays too, and agreed to join the band without any arm twisting or paycheck witholding. Both guitarists are really good, as of course, are the electric bassist and the other violinist. The music is tricky in places but not too tough I'd say.

You may be wondering how my arm behaved itself. It endured for quite some time, but by the end of the practice, my arm was killing me. I was glad that we had some doughnuts and talked for a while before I had to get in the car and drive. I will probably take some tylenol or something before going to bed, and make sure that it stays unbent all night long.