Archive for May, 2011


Adams again

This is an old post by Adams, but I want to highlight it because he makes an apt observation about the nature of many new composers’ pieces:

But back to the typical instrumental composition: The slow, nervous, unsettling introduction will most likely be followed an up-tempo OSTINATO. The ostinato has gained great prestige of late because students wrongly believe that this is what made Steve Reich and Phil Glass successful composers.

His explanations for why ostinato is such a prevalent technique only get about half the job done, however.  Here they are:

[Student composers] misunderstand the essence of minimalist technique, thinking that by merely introducing a repeated, grinding rhythmic figure they can achieve satisfying musical form.


Unfortunately most young composers come to their profession with little awareness and even less interest in creating a unique harmonic profile for their music. This is one reason why so many pieces resort to OSTINATO—it’s a kind of default mode to create a gravitational sense in the music.

I’d say both of these are accurate.  But it seems to me the primary reason for the abuse of ostinato is that it’s easy.  If you don’t really have an idea of where your piece is going, either specifically (in the foreground), or in a more general, background sense, it can be extremely arduous to produce even one measure.  And then, you’re not even guaranteed that the measures you manage to string together will work or cohere.  An ostinato is like “instant content,” or “instant length.”


Tony Robbi…I mean John Adams’ commencement address

Let’s pretend I am a nearly universally respected composer – a real heavy-weight in the world of music (this will take some Herculean pretending).  What can I say about music to graduates of perhaps the most high-profile music school in the world?  What can I say about music to the world via my immensely popular blog?  How about if I go on and on about the cool, hip clothing and hairstyles composers wear these days?  How about if I tell everyone to “Keep it fresh!  Do something new!  Something surprising!”?  Would you feel I’ve lived up to my reputation?  Would you feel I’ve said anything of substance?

I realize a commencement address isn’t the place to get into the nitty-gritty concerning how music really works.  But surely someone who enjoys the musical authority Adams enjoys could say something more meaningful about the current state of things musical than “[composers these days dress] like Justin Bieber with red high-tops…[or wear] fishnet stockings and her great-aunt’s pendant earrings.”  Honestly, why mention clothes at all?  Do the clothes worn by someone have any bearing on the quality of his or her product?  Talk about judging a book by its cover.  And the last thing a new generation of composers needs to be told is that this kind of frippery is somehow important and in fact does have bearing on their product.  This attitude is already pretty much pandemic.

My real gripe with what Adams has to say, however, is that he almost goes so far as to say people who choose to be artists are better people than everyone else: smarter, more stoic, more in touch with what it means to be human, etc.

The arts, however, are difficult. They are mind-bendingly and refreshingly difficult…[a]rtists are people who’ve learned how to surrender themselves to a higher purpose, to something better than their miserable little egos. They’ve been willing to put their self-esteem in a Cuisinart and let it be chopped and diced and crushed to a pulp.

This in contrast to other, “painfully literal-minded” people who just don’t get it, and who would be only too happy to see art go the way of the dinosaur.

[P]oliticians and other painfully literal-minded people during times of budget crises (which is pretty much all the time now) can’t wait to single the arts out for elimination…[t]hey consider that what we do can’t honestly be compared to the real business of life…

The arts can be difficult.  I’d never claim they weren’t.  But gimme a break!  I’d also never claim that what I do, or what Adams does, or even what Bach did is on a par with what Stephen Hawking does, or what Isaac Newton did, or what any of a host of other “literal-minded” “Philistines” have done.  Adams claims artists are the ones who have surrendered their egos, but these quotes suggest just the opposite to me.  There’s no shame in recognizing the place we artists occupy in the intellectual food chain.  Indeed, honesty is very much an intellectual virtue: a committment to reality.  I think the arts today could use quite a lot more “literal-mindedness.”

And just where does he get this idea that the awful, “scientistic,” “literal-minded” types don’t appreciate art?  He should spend more time perusing some science blogs.  The appreciation is there.  Full frontal appreciation.


Forget “where’s the beef?” Where’s the fricking music?!

So help me God.  This is exactly the kind of content-free “peripheralia” I detest and which prompted me to start this blog.  David T. Little’s exposition in the NYT Opinionator purports to be about music.  Really?  I don’t see that he’s said much about music at all.  This obsession with tangential, extra-musical superfluities seems to have become not just accepted, but expected in the music world, to the detriment of honest-to-goodness musical thought and understanding.  Professional musicians, professional composers even, hold forth with these “treatises” that pretend to explain what’s going on in their music, supposing that these extra-musical notions (i.e. political messages) can serve as a suitable surrogate for real musical logic.

Before I really get into taking Little’s nonsense apart let me first say that I have no problem whatsoever with using music to advance a political position.  Doing so can be an efficient and effective way of raising consciousness about a given issue.  I have no problem with the idea of programatic music in general (which is basically what we’re dealing with here).  If a composer wants to attach that element to a piece of music, fine.  Great.  S/he can knock him-or-herself out!  What we cannot do is make the leap to claiming that this programatic element has something to do with how the music itself works.

This article is one of those instances that brings the phrase “not even wrong” to mind.  Problems are nested within problems, fallacies spring from fallacies, and the whole nexus of “wrongitude” makes it difficult to find a suitable point of departure for criticism.

So here’s where I’ve decided to start:  the whole piece is presented as a false dichotomy, and Little attempts to argue for one side of it by erecting straw-men that are supposed to represent the other side.  Little asks the question: “Should music be political?”  This is the wrong question.  Well, a wrong question.  Obviously, he thinks the answer is “yes.”  I don’t see how this question can be answered with “yes” or “no.”  As I wrote above, if the composer intends a political message to be communicated, fine.  If not, also fine.  Hence the false dichotomy.  He presents what he supposes are the opposing arguments:

Some wanted to know how a piece of instrumental music could be political, or why I thought classical music was especially suited for this purpose. Others dismissed the political statements within the works as preaching to the converted, or decried the music’s alleged subjugation to a political message. Is all political music leftist, people asked, or can there be right-wing political music, too?

Most of those points miss the boat just as egregiously as has Little’s own.  They strike me as arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  They seem to be asking things and saying things, but if you take a step back, you can see that the whole context in which they’re cast is moot.  He almost got there with the very first question about how music could, in and of itself, convey a political message, but sure enough, he never gets around to addressing this question.

Instead, he offers this as the distillation of the kind of attitude he’s arguing against:

Art is pure, right?  Celestial.  To soil it with base, terrestrial politics feels improper, even rude…

And this is the straw-man: that those of us with legitimate questions about his ideas are simply pearl-clutchers who insist that ART must forever remain in an ivory tower, separated from the mundane, from real people who live in the real world – basically that we want to use it as a prop for our snobbery.

No.  I’ll speak for myself here, but others share my view (commenter no. 7 at the Opinionator page is one).  The problem is that he supposes he’s talking about music.  He’s not.  How on earth would consideration of, say, socio-economic systems inform a composer’s actual choice of pitch?  Don’t you dare answer with something like: “the dissonance here represents the clash between the classes…”  That type of superficial tone-painting has existed for a long time, and it’s obvious to real musicians that there is still a deeper, solely musical syntax at play.  Those kinds of “leitmotivic” gestures say nothing about how the music in fact works.

The kind of thinking this article represents is distressing to me at a real-world level because it puts people who don’t really possess penetrating musical understanding into positions of musical authority.  We all (or most of us – hopefully) agree that gender equality is to be aimed for, that discrimination based on sexuality or skin color is reprehensible, that we should be diligent stewards of the Earth, and take the long-view when it comes to environmental matters.  If your neighbor voiced these views to you, would you hail him/her as a creative genius?  Yet, when these political touchstones are attached to even the most bland, unimaginative, and uneventful pandiatonicism, that’s what happens to the composer.

And let’s say you’re listening to Beethoven’s Eroica, or even better, his opera Fidelio.  If you’re being turned on primarily by the political drama surrounding the composition and dedication of those pieces, I feel sorry for you.  You are missing so much beauty – beauty which stems from Beethoven’s mastery of the logic and syntax of the tonal language.  The locus of ingenuity in the works of the masters is not to be found in the mechanism by which they attached an extra-musical element, if they did at all.  Indeed, what sort of “social commentary” are we supposed to perceive in, say, the Praeludio from Bach’s 3rd Partita for solo violin?  Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers (assuming none of them gives the proper response: wtf are you talking about?)

The music has to work, first and foremost.  The tricks and gimmicks used to associate a specific message with the music, while undeniably of some interest, cannot substitute, in the composer’s arsenal, for genuine musical comprehension.  Little summarizes his approach to composition thus:

The question then became: how can one effectively engage the political without negatively impacting the art?

But the point of what I’ve written immediately above, and the point of this whole criticism, is that this is a meaningless question.  Do the political messages in Fidelio (which, btw, are only intelligible because of the presence of a LIBRETTO) have any bearing on the quality of the musical content?  All notes remaining the same, would Fidelio be more of an achievement without the politics?  Or is the music better because of the politics?

The icing on the cake in this piece is this lovely little instantiation of (was there really any doubt we’d encounter it in something like this?) postmodern relativism:

Each of these positions is right, and each is wrong.  More importantly, each is driven by its own private ideological motor.

This attitude is far too prevalent in the arts.  It’s not the result of considered deliberation over a given topic; rather it is a result of committing the fallacious Argument to Moderation, and also a result of the incapacity or disinclination to think hard and realistically about something.

Even if we grant that Little is not trying to say anything about how music really works (but he is), what is it that he has said?  As far as I can make out, only that he likes to use the music he writes as a means of voicing his political notions.  He hasn’t detailed how he thinks this should be done; he hasn’t explained how he actually has done it; he hasn’t even let us in on what his oh-so-important political messages are.  Well, I like cookies.  What about it?

I can honestly say my eyes were welling with tears of despair as I read this article.  This is becoming more and more representative of what passes for deep thought about music.  I say it’s pseudo-intellectual onanism.  Here’s my own stab at it:  “This piece of music (oh, let’s say it’s basically just a rocking back-and-forth between i and flat-VII, on top of which I slowly pile various Aeolian melodic fragments) represents the current narrative in which the capitalist paradigm exerts a hegemonic influence.  The climax represents my hope for the eventual triumph of the proletariat.”

I can haz MacArthur Grant now pleez?


Mendelssohnian musings

Sometimes I think Mendelssohn gets short shrift.  Perhaps it’s just an artifact of my own musical upbringing (which didn’t include a lot of Mendelssohn), but it seems to me his music is not paid the attention it deserves.  Of course, everyone knows the overture to, and the wedding march from, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Octet is fairly ubiquitous, but how many people know the motets?  The overture for winds?  (I like to joke that the body of the overture for winds [after a spine-tingling introduction] is what Arthur Sullivan’s music would have sounded like if Sullivan had been a better composer.)  Heck, even the epic 2nd symphony isn’t particularly well-known.  Here’s a taste of it (do watch the entire thing; you won’t be disappointed):

Of course, one of Mendelssohn’s great claims to fame is his revival of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and of interest in Bach’s music in general.  Mendelssohn was obviously influenced by Bach’s music.  Like Bach, Mendelssohn knew that whatever events occur on the surface of a piece of tonal music, however catchy, unusual, or seemingly capricious they may be, need to be grounded and united in driving toward goals.  In chapter one of his magnum opus, Der Freie Satz, Heinrich Schenker says “Without a goal, there can be no content.”  And like Bach, Mendelssohn knew how to arrange a logical sequence of goals.  His harmonies never appear completely unjustified, although, again like Bach (and all great composers), the element of surprise – where appropriate – is retained.  Indeed, one of the skills that sets the master apart from the dilettante is the ability to at once flout and satisfy the listener’s expectations.  A surprising event on the surface can and should be able to be thoroughly explained and shown to meet logic’s demands in the background. 

Schenker has this to say about superficial complexity: “A firmly established linear progression can withstand even the most discordant friction of voices as they move contrapuntally.”  Schenker is often accused of un-artistic reductionism, but I’d reduce the idea contained in that statement even further and say that a firmly established scale-step can withstand that same friction.  The point is that as long as the composer takes care to create the individual voices so that they work toward a common, perceptible and intentional* goal (or harmonic expression), there is actually a great deal of freedom with which those voices can move and “bump into each other.”  One can see this in the works of Bach especially, when a certain vertical simultaneity of tones appears to defy classification as a chord.  This is because it does defy classification as a chord.  Such phenomena are better understood as artifacts of counterpoint – discordant friction. 

If I were to make one criticism of Mendelssohn’s writing, it would be that his counterpoint can be a little too “on-the-nose,” so to speak.  It often expresses harmony a little too squarely; the voices are often a bit too co-operative, and lose some  of their sense of individuality.  Sometimes I wish there were more of that “discordant friction” of which Schenker spoke, and of which Bach was a consummate master.  Bach’s counterpoint often blurs the line between what would be, in a lesser talent’s hands, obviously discrete harmonies.  This way of writing creates, perhaps counter-intuitively, a more coherent, tightly knit structure.  These overlapping and interlocking discords and resolutions serve to create a sort of fascia that really holds the piece together.  Music that proceeds in clearly demarcated “chunks” of harmony hangs together much more loosely.  One can almost “see” through the holes between the harmonies.  The “non-square” kind of writing I’ve been flogging here does appear in Mendelssohn’s music from time to time, I just wish it were more often.

*There is a lot of music out there that only superficially mimics the processes of the masters.  Sometimes one comes across a passage in such a piece that seems to arrive at a “goal,” but it is clear from the surrounding mess that the “goal” was only accidentally stumbled upon, as when a fairly new piano student tries several things out on the keyboard until finally (and not due to any real forethought) they strike upon something pleasing: “Oh! That sounds good!”


A cadential extension

Further thoughts on the (so-called) plagal cadence:

The example from pop (I – V – vi – IV – repeat ad lib) provided by the commenter “LucasMan” at the page linked to in my previous post is obviously not a plagal cadence.  I’m not sure it contains a cadence at all, really.  At most, the arrival on IV might be considered a kind of deceptive cadence.  But the musical “units” are clearly divided between the IV and the subsequent I; the I is a point of departure, not arrival.  That the I is not a dovetailing of both an arrival and a departure (as sometimes happens) is borne out by the fact that, far and away, this harmonic formula is most commonly used in pop several times over until finally, at a certain point, it indeed gives way to a real dominant; it’s simply taken several “tries” to get there.

A slightly better (but not ultimately convincing) example would have been to cite this common pop progression: I – IV – I – IV – I – IV – V – IV – I.  It’s possible to view the V that eventually appears as an upper neighbor to the IV, meaning that the only functional harmonies present are IV and I.  But when that V comes along in this progression, it carries with it such a feeling of emphasis, of arrival, that I’m very reluctant to rob it of functionality.  A slightly more complex (but, I think, musically correct) interpretation would be that the IV appearing between the V and the I is an interpolation – an incomplete lower neighbor which does not affect the function of the V as a dominant.



Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit that I’ve only now come across the theorist William Caplin.  While I was sure that I couldn’t have been the only one to notice it, I was reasonably certain that no one had formally written about the illusory nature of the plagal cadence.  Oh, well.  I’ll have to make my mark some other way.

In the link above, “Suhwahaksaeng’s” question is not surprisingly met with what are probably knee-jerk defenses of the status quo.  “Pter b’s” response is full of invective, and not full of good counter-argument (which is why I’m surprised to see that Pter b recommends Charles Rosen – a truly formidable musical thinker).  “LucasMan’s” counter-example from pop-music seems to me to be better explained as an incomplete musical thought – one supplies the authentic cadence in one’s imagination.  This kind of thing is not rare; I suppose it could be called a kind of elision.  An analogous classical procedure would be the arrival on V/vi, at which point the tonic is reasserted.  The resolution (vi) is not necessary if the music has been well-written and the function of the V/vi is clear from the foregoing material – the “resolution” having been provided before the fact, as it were.  (The analogy being that the V/vi and the IV are in these cases both goals, a poetic subversion of their usual function as a stepping-stone toward a goal)

“Theory didn’t come first.  Music came first.”  That’s true.  But so what?  We shouldn’t listen closely and try to tease out the perceptual phenomena at play?  This is just more of the “unweaving the rainbow” meme, unfortunately.

I’m not saying I’m in total agreement with Caplin’s absolute assertion.  One piece that troubles me in this regard is Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, BWV 565.  The machinations required to explain away plagal motion at the end of this piece begin to make a true plagal cadence the most parsimonious explanation.  But I need to think about it more.


Architecture, Art, Arthur and Adams

I sometimes compare music to architecture. 

During one of my recent ruminations I got to thinking about why it isn’t sufficient to justify what you put on the paper only with extra-musical, programatic explanations.  If you want to add that element to a composition, fine, but there must also be a musical logic at work in the background, wherein the pitches and rhythms are reckoned unto themselves.  An architect may draw up fanciful plans, having been influenced by, or trying to evoke, some extra-architecural idea or ideas, but the construction will not stand if it doesn’t abide by the architectural guidelines that have been determined by our discovery of the physical laws governing the behavior of matter.

And then I remembered this bit from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

ARTHUR: But – It looks like… like… just like a plastic cup! Hanging in the sky. It’s…It’s about a mile long.
BIRD ONE: Looks like plastic. Carved from solid marble there.
ARTHUR: But the weight of it! What’s supporting it?! What keeps it there?!
BIRD ONE: It’s only part of the main statue – fifteen miles high. It’s directly behind us, but I’ll circle round in a moment.
ARTHUR: Fifteen miles high?
BIRD ONE: Very impressive from up here with the morning sun gleaming on it.                                                               

ARTHUR: But what is it? What’s worth a statue fifteen miles high?
BIRD ONE: It was of great symbolic importance to our ancestors, it’s called
’Arthur Dent Throwing the Nutrimatic Cup’.
ARTHUR: Sorry, what did you say?
[BIRD flies them closer]
BIRD ONE: There. What do you think of it?
ARTHUR: Ugh. Oh, oh. I mean…
BIRD ONE: Good isn’t it?
ARTHUR: Ah. Look, the statue, how did you get the cup bit to stay where it is unsupported?
WISE OLD BIRD: It stays there because it’s artistically right.

 Douglas Adams lampooning the ill-justified, the unsupported, in art.

May 2011