08.09.2008

As I mentioned in my last post, the second event of the concert in Long Beach was a set of guitar pieces by Lou Harrison, performed by John Schneider (of the Partch Ensemble). Harrison (1917-2003) was an American composer who wrote mostly in just intonation, a system of tuning based on pure mathematical ratios, as opposed to the irrational ratios used by the more widespread equal temperament. (As a brief aside: Many hold that just intonation is a purer and more beautiful tuning than equal temperament–the standard in western music from the 19th century to the present day–but the former becomes impractical after a certain harmonic point because some intervals get so out of tune that they become unusable.)

Before Schneider played the pieces (he actually played two suites), he gave a brief talk about Harrison, the tuning he used, and the pieces themselves. The most interesting part of his discussion was his explanation of the guitars he used. Typical guitars use equal-tempered frets, so that they can play with pianos and other equal-tempered instruments, and their fretboards look like this:

However, in order to play just intonation music on a guitar, the fretboard must be modified, to look more like this (the man in this picture, by the way, is Schneider himself):

Remarkably, he showed the bewildered audience that the fretboard was actually a magnet–he slipped it right out from under the strings and held it up to show us. The neck was magnetic, he explained, and the justly-tuned fretboards were put on large magnet boards–just like a kitchen magnet–so they could be interchangeable. The pieces themselves were very good, and held my interest much longer than the other pieces in the concert. I recorded a video of the performance on my cell phone, which you can see below. Neither the video nor the audio quality is too good, but you can hear how the tuning is different from a normal guitar.

Tuning is really a fascinating subject. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find articles and resources at the website of The Just Intonation Network, as well as the excellent Tuning Information page on Kyle Gann’s website.

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08.08.2008

Several weeks ago my lovely girlfriend and I went to a concert in Long Beach. I had received notification of the concert through the LA chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I’m a member); but when we arrived at the location it almost felt like an underground gathering. It was held at an art gallery that had a stage ringed with red curtains in the back. Plastic folding chairs were set up for the audience, and all manner of interesting folk were there.

The first piece was what (I think) is usually designated “sound art,” where four people made a bunch of noises with different instruments or electronic devices; the noises were picked up by microphones, which ran into sound boards that looped the noises so they would play several times before dying away. Occasionally the noisemakers would adjust various attributes of the sounds as they played, such as the panning (left to right), the delay (echo), etc. It was mildly interesting, but more tiring than interesting, and it seemed to me more like four guys playing around with technology and seeing what they could make their stuff do than artful music, or even artful sound.

The second piece, or rather set of pieces, was the best of the evening: a set of Lou Harrison guitar pieces, played by a musician named John Schneider. But we shall return there in the next post.

The third and final piece (the concert was too informal and not really long enough for an intermission) was some ever-popular Cambodian classical music. It was performed on two marimba-like instruments (except the wooden bars were suspended rather than fixed), two instruments that formed rings around the players and were some other type of pitched percussion, a drummer, a bored-looking woman playing small finger cymbals, and the apparent leader, a flutist playing some sort of straight Cambodian flute (as opposed to the western flute which is played to the side). It was interesting music; the theme of the concert was microtonality–music that uses intervals smaller than a half step, or more informally, music that uses notes that would fit in the cracks between black and white notes on the piano. The Cambodian music was interesting because it was based on a type of pentatonic scale, but somehow a microtonal one. The traditional pentatonic scale is formed of five notes (penta-, five, and tonic, tone) that correspond to the black notes on a piano:

The scale that the Cambodian musicians used was similar to this one, but some of the tones were slightly different than those–a little “off.” That made the music a bit more interesting than typical pentatonic music, which tends to get old fast because there’s very little dissonance and thus few opportunities for tension. But it still grew tiring after a while, because there wasn’t too much variation in the texture and even with the microtonality in the pentatonic scale it still lacked harmonic variety. But, all the same, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience Cambodian classical music, since that opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

Tune in in a few days for part II–”The Well-Tuned Guitar!”

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07.25.2008

John Cage Performing One Of His Compositions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:13 am

Although he doesn’t post much anymore, in the past I’ve enjoyed reading Greg Wilbur’s blog. Wilbur is the director of music for a PCA church in Tennessee, and his blog most often deals with topics regarding music, worship and the church. He recently posted this video of John Cage performing one of his compositions on an old TV show. John Cage was a controversial American composer of the 20th century (he died in 1992) who experimented conceptually with the line between music, noise and silence. His most famous piece is probably 4’33″, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence–or, as Cage understood it, of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear for the duration of the piece. He was also famous for the invention of the “prepared piano,” in which objects such as screws, coins and paper were placed in the strings of the piano, altering its sound. The video is nine and a half minutes long, but intriguing, to say the least.

Wilbur’s comment on the video: “This is long, but the absurdity of what is meant as ‘music’ is worth watching.”

I commented on his post and said this: “At least people back then had the good sense to laugh at him. It’s all too easy to imagine a concert hall of musicians and composers from academia sitting and listening quietly today. I take it as a sign of my musical sanity that I laughed as well.”

His response: “I agree. Even the host’s need to express that this was ‘serious’ music but that people would laugh is a far better indicator of musical judgment than ivory tower academicians. It’s an interesting thing to see how someone’s artistic philosophy actually serves to destroy that which they say they value. In this case, broad theories of sound as music replaces that which makes music music.”

It certainly brings up some intriguing questions. What makes music music? What is the line between music and noise? Does that line remain constant through different times and different cultures?

What do you think? Leave a comment and join the discussion!

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07.17.2008

Blue Soliloquy, Steven Winteregg

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:06 am

I mentioned in my post about the NYT article that I’m a member of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, CFAMC for short. Every month they produce a listening page featuring a work by one of their member composers, which is generally very good. I wanted to share the latest one here because I enjoyed the piece very much. It’s called Blue Soliloquy, and it was written by Steven Winteregg, who is the Dean of the School of Humanities and Professor of Music at Cedarville University (in Ohio). The piece is for unaccompanied horn, and it was composed as a remembrance for the performer’s father, who was a lover of old jazz; so the piece is flavored with jazz idioms and an elegiac mood. By way of my analysis of the piece, here are my comments, as expressed in an email to the composer after I’d listened to the piece:

“Reading your program notes, it was difficult to imagine a piece that would fulfill your stated purpose better than yours did–it was perfectly suited to the story you shared. From a compositional perspective, I always enjoy music that unfolds slowly–I tend to write slowly developing pieces myself–and I very much enjoyed how yours evolved that way. I also appreciated your careful and artful handling of your motives (the minor third and stepwise fourth ideas), in the way they were sometimes flipped and the way they developed. Great piece. I heard it also as being very easily adapted to a film noir-type scene in a score: a dark city alley in the pouring rain, with some soft jazz drums and a light string background accompanying the horn. Well done, from an admiring young composer!”

You can view the listening page, which has program notes and a statement of faith and bio for the composer as well as the recording, at the following link:

CFAMC Listening Page #44: Blue Soliloquy by Steven Winteregg

I’ll likely be sharing more CFAMC listening pages here in the future, as I hear them. And in the meantime, if you’d like, you could always check out CFAMC Listening Page #41, which featured my piece I Am Phoenix.

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07.15.2008

Can Music Change The Taste Of Wine?

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:45 am

This is remarkable. It was on MSN’s frontpage a few days ago; I noticed it at work and forwarded it to my personal email address, and just watched it this evening. Unfortunately the MSN video doesn’t have embed code, so you’ll have to go to their site to watch it–but at least this link will take you right to the video:

Can Music Change The Taste Of Wine?

For a composer and aspiring wine snob like myself, this is big news. It also vindicates a comment I made to my girlfriend several nights ago. She was at my apartment and we were going to drink wine and listen to some music. Our wine of choice that evening happened to be Konzelmann Gewürztraminer, a sweet white wine, and I made the comment that Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (one of my all-time favorite pieces) would pair better with red wine than white. (My reasoning behind this, if you’re interested, was that the “Rach 2,” as cool classical-music people call it, is a big, dark, heavy Russian piece full of emotion and passion; and it seemed to me that a full-bodied, dry red wine would fit that mood better than a sweet white.) She thought I was crazy, of course. But this video proves that there may be something to it after all.

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07.10.2008

"Flutey and the Beast"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

My friend Jeff is a music ed major at California Baptist University and a tuba player, and his senior tuba recital is coming up next spring. On one recent evening out to dinner with him and his wife, he half-joked that if I wrote a piece for him, he would play it for his recital–better yet, write a piece for tuba and flute, and he and his wife could play it (she is, obviously, a flutist). I laughed at the idea of writing a duet for flute and tuba, but it was such a compelling challenge that I had to take it.

I tried to think of some inspiration that would make such a duet work musically, and the best thing I hit on was a sort of “beauty and the beast” idea, with each instrument playing one of the roles (I’ll leave you to guess which is which). I ran with it, and completed the rough draft of the piece a few weeks ago.

It starts with a (probably over-)dramatic introduction, followed by the beast’s theme, a gruff and angry set of fourths and octaves in the mid-to-low range of the tuba. There is a brief glimmer of the beast’s longing to be, well, not so beastly, a tender midrange melody, but it is quickly interrupted by the gruffness. The flute’s “beauty” character tries to interject here and there but is also interrupted, although she gets in a few echoes of the longing idea. Finally she plays her own beauty theme, by herself: much more tonal and sweet-sounding, based on ascending fourths and thirds, but is outspoken by the beast when she’s finished. The middle section is the softening of the beast, as he slowly but surely is won over by the beauty, until finally he consents to play his longing theme accompanied in harmony by the flute (similar to the Vox Balaenae principle, though not quite as dramatic), and even plays her theme down in his low range. The flute takes over with one last triumphant restatement of the beauty theme, with the tuba playing a bass line. The introduction returns, slightly modified, as the conclusion.

It’s a little ridiculous, musically speaking, but pretty comical. And if you know the story behind it, I think it makes sense when you hear it (although it might not make as much musical sense if you didn’t know the story). I went over to Jeff’s house the other day and he and his wife read through the piece a few times, and it went off rather well. It’s strange; I thought the musical colors of the two instruments would clash, but they actually blend surprisingly well, and the timbre of the flute is able to cut through the tuba’s sound to be heard (although I’m sure at forte or fortissimo dynamic levels the flute wouldn’t stand a chance). I’m going to make some revisions to the piece, but I’m excited at how it’s turning out thus far.

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06.28.2008

Mood Music for the Beach

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

On Wednesday night after work, I felt that the air was cooler than it had been over the past few days, and I could feel the ocean beckoning me. So after a brief stop back at the apartment, I hopped in my car and headed down to the beach–Newport Beach, to be precise. I felt that this occasion, which was the first time I’ve gone to the beach alone since I moved to Irvine, warranted some particular music to fit my mood: excited, adventurous, free. I chose U2, unsurprisingly–All That You Can’t Leave Behind, to be precise. “Beautiful Day” is the first track, and one of the most popular songs of their whole career; it seemed to embody the feeling I needed. It was the first song we listened to as we set out on our road trip last fall, so perhaps that gave it an adventurous and free connotation in my mind. Wednesday was a beautiful evening, at the least; the orange sun burned in a pink and cloudless sky. I raced it down to the horizon, and won by a little, as it hung red just above the fog when I arrived at Newport.

I set up my beach chair a little way back from the water, and journaled for a while. When I was finished, I pulled out my iPod and looked out over the sea. I love the ocean, and again I needed to find music that fit the mood of the situation. I felt as if I needed something to match the grandeur of the sea and the vastness of the sky, and as I browsed through the artists on my iPod I settled on some excellent choral music: the Mass of Swiss composer Frank Martin. (The recording I have comes from the CD Cathedral Classics, by the Dale Warland Singers, and it’s AMAZING.) I promise I’ll write a post about the Mass within the next week or so, because it’s such an awesome piece that it deserves its own post. But for now, suffice it to say that it served my purpose perfectly: sometimes big, grand and soaring, sometimes soft and sweet, always creative and evocative. It was a little hard to hear when it got softer in volume, due to the roaring of the waves, but otherwise it matched the emotion and mood of the scene.

After the Mass was over (it’s about 25 minutes long), I felt I needed some Chopin. Chopin was a Romantic composer (i.e. he lived in the 19th century–1810 to 1849, to be precise) who wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and his music is so distinctive that it’s almost immediately identifiable by anyone who knows his style. His music is very poignant, evocative and emotional, and often is characterized by a longing or yearning feeling that I felt would be appropriate to the sea following the Martin. (It was, in some senses, like choosing which fine wines would pair well with the various courses of a meal. The Martin Mass communicated the grandeur of the ocean and the sky in themselves; the Chopin matched the longing and intimacy of me, a lone man, standing before them in their grandeur.) I chose his Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, from a recording by Krystian Zimerman.

(Incidentally, an interesting side note: a short time into the Ballade, I changed the EQ setting on my iPod from “Loudness” to “Piano.” The difference was very noticeable; the piano didn’t necessarily sound better–I actually felt like it got a little shallower and brighter in sound–but it was much better defined and much clearer, and I could even hear the pianist taking breaths as he played. It was in short a very helpful EQ setting.)

All of the ballades of Chopin (he wrote four) are worth listening to, but the first is my favorite, followed closely by the second (which I’ll also blog about soon, perhaps). And the first again was a perfect choice to pair with the cuisine of sea and sky; its yearning seemed a fitting musical counterpart to the constantly breaking waves.

When the Ballade ended, due to the waves covering some of the sound and the fact that I was getting very cold, I decided to pack up my chair and backpack and head home. Back in the car, I returned to the U2 CD; but things seemed to revert to my usual listening-to-music-in-the-car mood.

I’ve noted in the past that listening to an iPod while doing something else like walking, or watching the ocean, or whatever, is good training for being a film composer. Film composers need to be able to capture whatever human emotion is being displayed on screen and express it through music. And if I’m listening to something on my iPod, it’s almost like a movie soundtrack to the life that I’m experiencing; I can note what emotions that type of music stirs in me in that particular setting, and that would help me if I was ever to compose music for a scene in a film with a similar setting and emotion. So, Mark, if you ever make a film that has to do with the beach and you need some scoring for it, you know who to call: me–to be precise.

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06.04.2008

The Vox Balaenae Principle

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:56 am

Forgive me for not posting in a few days; I’ve just moved into a new apartment in Irvine and just started a new job in Costa Mesa, and consequently have had less time and no internet until tonight. Hopefully I’ll be back to posting regularly now. And in the meantime, thanks so much to all who have been commenting–I really appreciate your feedback, insights or random thoughts on what I’ve written. Keep ‘em coming! Now to the real post:

I heard George Crumb’s work Vox Balaenae (Latin for “Voice of the Whale”) several years ago at Cal State Fullerton’s new music festival. It was performed by three members of the incomparable eighth blackbird ensemble (the scoring is for flute, cello and piano, all amplified), as the score specifies, in black half-masks and under deep blue stage lighting. It was an eerie setting for a really cool piece.

I have to confess that I haven’t heard it since then, so my recollections are vague, but the main thing I remember is the subject of this post. The piece utilizes lots of extended techniques to evoke the sea and the whalesong, meaning unconventional ways of playing the instruments–singing through the flute, playing on the strings inside the piano, etc. And (we remember) it’s by George Crumb, which together with the extended techniques means that it isn’t always easy to listen to, often has a random/incoherent feel to it, and denies any kind of resolution most of the time. But in the middle of the piece, it suddenly broke out into a clear, tonal, chordal passage that was absolutely lovely. And because of the style of everything that had come before it, it was heartbreakingly beautiful–much more so than it would have been on its own, without the surrounding material. It was so much a contrast to the preceding music that it was thrown into sharper relief, and the effect was amazing.

The principle proved itself again a few weeks ago. I went to the senior composition recital of a friend of mine named Seán Dunnahoe, and the three pieces on the program were of a similar mold as I’ve described above. The middle piece was entitled Textural Study and was scored for three flutes, clarinets in Bb, A and bass varieties and portative organ. It included lots of aleatoric elements: cells of notes repeated arhythmically playing against other cells in other instruments, and that type of thing. But at several points all the instruments came together and played a few chords of the major and minor varieties, and the effect was similar to the one in Vox Balaenae. It was such a contrast to what had come before that it was beautiful, and it had a very dramatic effect.

Therefore, from henceforth I shall call this “The Vox Balaenae Principle.” I may even try to use it in one of the compositions I’m working on now, an a cappella choral piece about the fall of Rome. Hmm, that would actually work really well….

(If you’re interested, there’s an excellent page on Vox Balaenae on Crumb’s website that lists all the details of the piece and includes program notes and a review.)

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05.28.2008

In The Beginning, Aaron Copland

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

A while ago I purchased a CD on iTunes entitled American Choral Music. The reason was because it contained a recording of Fern Hill by John Corigliano, which I was singing in Cal State Fullerton’s University Singers choir at the time; I fell in love with Fern Hill shortly after we began singing it, and it’s had my heart ever since. I’m sure I’ll post about it on this blog at some point. But the CD also contained a piece by Aaron Copland, called In The Beginning, which I had never heard or heard of before. I just listened to it again recently on my iPod.

It’s a setting of the biblical story of creation from Genesis 1:1 – 2:7 (King James Version), not versified in any way but just straight from the KJV text, for mezzo-soprano solo and unaccompanied chorus. The music is very accessible, and I must say I like this piece a lot. My previous experience with Copland had been confined to instrumental and orchestral music, and I was unaware of any choral repertoire; but considering how much I like this piece I may need to look into his choral works further.

Despite the challenges of setting prose text (which Copland of course handles masterfully) and unifying a through-composed piece, the creation narrative has a variety of recurring phrases, such as “And God said,” “And it was so,” “And God saw that it was good,” etc. These give Copland some chances for recurring motifs, which he uses to satisfactorily unifying effect. My favorite is his setting of “And the evening and the morning were the [first, second etc.] day”: he uses the same basic chord progression each time, with subtle variations–but each day is progressively one half-step higher than the last.

There is a lot of fun word painting in the piece, my own favorite being the sudden, clear high soprano entrance on the word “lights” in “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night”; you can almost see the first star flashing into existence in the night sky. The climax is at the very end of the piece, stretching all the voices to the top of their ranges for the phrase “And man became a living soul.”

Listening to the piece, which was composed in 1947, this last time, I heard many elements that reminded me of Eric Whitacre: the same type of word painting and chordal coloring that make Whitacre’s music so distinctive. I wonder if Whitacre’s style was at all influenced by Copland.

Homework for me: Look up Copland’s other choral music, and investigate Copland’s possible influence on Eric Whitacre.

Links for you:
     - In The Beginning Fact Sheet (from the Library of Congress
       Aaron Copland Collection)
     - First page of the score
     - Excerpt from In The Beginning, sung by the MIT Chamber Chorus

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