Medtner's Piano Quintet: Coloring Outside the Lines

Lately I have been enjoying some chamber music. Commuting to school or work in Santa Barbara rarely takes longer than 15 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to listen to a favorite movement from an old standby or incrementally explore a new find.

Most recently the Piano Quintet in C Major of Nikolai Medtner has become something of an obsession. Even as I write this post there are fragments of melody spinning around in my head. I have been working my way through various piano quintets (for those unfamiliar, an ensemble usually involving piano + string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello)). Perhaps in a later post I will share some thoughts on works by Schumann, Schubert, Shostakovich (hmm... I seem to be on a [sh] kick), Stanford, and Franck.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

The Medtner stands out to me from these other examples because of his bold use of textures and colors. He has some very nice melodies (again, they are earworming my brain pretty strong right now), and I'm aware of some canonic or contrapuntal techniques, but the real interest lies in his textures, and especially in how he juxtaposes different sections.

Take a listen to the first minute of movement 1 below:

From the very first moments, the deep, arpeggiating piano punctuated by pizzicato strings has a striking effect. The oscillating harmony over a drone during this section has a modal quality that would make me want to use words like "epic" or "exotic" if my musicologist oath didn't prevent me. And just about when you get used to the sound, something different pops up: a descending figure in the piano, floating Zeus-like down on a cloudy bed of wavering strings. (To be fair, it is perhaps less Zeus-like than I thought a minute ago... If pressed, I think I'd change that to an Iris-like descent, the Greek rainbow goddess. Yeah, that fits. Nailed it! #hermeneutics)

After that interesting introduction (which comes back later, like at 6:44 and after, giving Iris a much more important role in the entire piece) the first real melody is passed around between some strings, building, subsiding, doing what a late-Romantic piece of music ought to. Then around 0:44 there is a sudden shift in harmony and the wavering strings come back in a moment that sounds like a fragment of a film score. The instruments seem unperturbed by this gravitational shift, and the piano takes up the opening melody.

Keep listening to that first movement and notice the constant shifts, especially those where the piano or strings or both lapse into shimmering filagree.

I want to highlight one more moment where the cool and calm of the piece is disrupted by a moment of utter perturbation and how the instruments find their way out of the problem. Start around 4:30 where an ecstatic and energetic chorale puts the piece in the height of self-possession. The melody starts to evaporate, flickering out with a tremolo until you are left in a rather uncomfortable silence at 4:57. The strings try to feel their way in the aural dark by striking some pizzicato matches. (It worked before in the introduction!) But this effort only rouses the piano, which strikes out in brutal gestures from the low register! The strings, giddy with fear, echo back the piano's declamation. It's hard to imagine how the music will recover from this derailment.

And then, BAM! a piercing shaft of light at 5:30! It's a brilliant moment of ornamental energy, completely shifting the harmony, reigniting the instrumentalists' focus, and returning to them their sense of unity as each take their place and set out anew. From there its pretty smooth sailing through glorious melodies until the pizzicato-punctuated ending.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's The Golden Key.  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

Very nice piece. I especially love "Musica Viva's" rendition here. Check out the other two movements when you have the time. Or take a 25 minute commute somewhere (down to Ventura to visit either of their two Target locations, perhaps?) and hear all three.



Good for Them, Not for Me

I've been told by several people throughout my schooling that excellence, be it studying for the SATs, performance on a musical instrument, or musicological research and writing, only comes at the expense of normal life. Should an academic make that mistake to get married, it shouldn't effect their study or career. Same goes with parenting. To be the Man of Steel (read: PhD) one needs a Fortress of Solitude (read: Ivory Tower) and nothing should impede your labor. There have been times when I've attempted to live this out. But I'm not very good at it. I won't give up on spending time (or even wasting time) with my wife or my daughter or other loved ones.

Don't misunderstand me! I've gone to school for 23 years. I've worked extremely hard. I'm proud of what I've accomplished and I'm excited by what's coming. But to some, I have not gone about this right. I haven't suffered enough. Or fretted enough. Or regretted enough. Or picked a boring enough dissertation topic. To them I will quote the great Amy Poehler: "Good for them, not for me."

To this end, I am letting go of my grand vision, The Mumford & Sons Project (for now). You may have noted a slight half-year hiatus in the this blog's writing, and the reason is that the M&S Project was meant to be a chill, low-stress sideshow that would give me relief from dissertating and parenting. Yet, in fitting Matthew Roy fashion, what it became was something that I found inspiring, interesting, complex, subtle, and deserving of intense thought, consideration, nuance, and footnotes. Not exactly a side project. And I have a toddler whom I love. And the dissertation sometimes feels like a toddler, whom I also love.

This blog also began to feel like it was another place to prove that I am an academic. (People, serious, scholarly people, may see my unpolished writing!) But it's not. It's a side project. In the future I will inevitably talk about scholarly things, because I truly enjoy investigating the world that way. I will also likely betray my penchant for jocularity and nerdiness. (If you doubt the scholarly as well as soulful importance of laughter, take a look at Mikhail Bakhtin's introduction to his study on Rabelais.) First and foremost, it will be an outlet. And I will perhaps begin to enjoy it once again.

Perhaps you will to!


M&S Project: Sigh No More (Part 1: Lyrics)

Alright. Here we go!

For the first musicological analysis of Mumford and Sons music we'll take a look at the first song from their first album, Sigh No More. As stated in the introductory post, these explorations consider the music from a variety of angles in order to tease out instances of musical communication. This initial foray considers the combined effects of word and music as they progress through time.

I'm going to take some time to really dig into the lyrics of the song in this first post. This won't necessarily happen each time, but I think it's a good idea for three reasons:

  1. Most readers are probably more familiar and comfortable with analyzing words for their meaning or meanings (poetic exegesis, if you will),
  2. Having a solid foundation in the text will help us to understand how the music works with or against that meaning, how it relates to the semantic meaning of the words, and
  3. The eventual musical argument I'm trying to make will be important for future analyses, so going slowly now will give us a leg up later.

I won't always provide the written out song texts in their entirety. In some cases, ambiguities in the words provide opportunities for multiple meanings in their interpretation and is part of what makes the song so interesting. I'll actually be arguing that ambiguities in the words make them more musical, but that's jumping the gun... When considering the lyrics of Sigh No More, there is actually something of a problem in nailing down the "official" text; a quick search online reveals a plethora of contrary variations that drastically alter the meaning of the poem from one version to the next. The version I'm writing out here is the best one that I can come up with, based mostly on my own ears and aided by a little Shakespeare. Here it is, divvied up into three sections:

I've divided the words into three sections, basing this division on rhyme schemes, meter, and poetic meaning. By grouping the words in this way, we can see the tenor or feeling of the text change from one section to the next.

In section A, I've underlined the lyrics that are quotations from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: "Serve God..." are Benedick's words of comfort to a dejected and wrathful Beatrice (Act V, scene ii), "Live unbruised..." comes from the concluding denouement where almost all character relationships are healed either through brotherly forgiveness or marriage (Act V, scene iv), and "Sigh no more..." is a fragment from a longer song that takes as its theme the infidelity of men ("deceivers ever") and the need of women to shrug off their defects ("by you blithe and bonny") (Act 2, scene iii). These quotations are not only plucked out of their theatrical context (while retaining some of the narrative associations for those who know where they come from), but are combined or sandwiched or mixed in with original lyrics by Mumford and Sons, which create interesting layers of reference and meaning.

What I mean by reference is what I perceive to be an ambiguity in who is speaking/singing the words at any given time. In the first stanza of section A, we hear a quote by Shakespeare, then an original line, another Shakespeare, and more original lyrics. The original words strike me as powerfully subjective and personal, as if uttered by a narrator, perhaps a narrator who is reading or listening to or recalling these lines by Shakespeare. This reflection upon someone else's words causes the narrator to insert their own commentary, and a desperate commentary it seems to be, judging by the repetition of "I'm sorry". Apparently Benedick's forgiveness does little to alleviate the narrator's conscience, but rather intensifies the feeling of guilt.

Again, in the second stanza of section A, Balthazar's song gets only two lines in before it is interrupted by the narrator who seems to identify only too closely with the culpability and fallenness of mankind, twice declaring "you know me". (Who this "you" actually is is a fascinating question!)

So, already this song has set up an interesting tension between a preexistent text and reactive commentary. Shakespeare is known as being an authoritative observer of human character, and it all seems to be too much for the increasingly despondent narrator.

The B section is short and unassuming, but actually functions as an important pivot point in the trajectory of this text. Another Shakespeare quote, "Man is a giddy thing" sums up Benedick's assessment of his own development, his changing character and priorities (Act V, scene iv). This time the narrator has nothing to add. Instead, the quote echoes not once, not twice but four times total! Repetition is very important in poetry and in music. The lyrics repeatedly declare that man is "giddy", a fun word that has roots both in "insanity" and in "being possessed by God". Benedick means here that he is duplicitous, a confirmed bachelor throughout most of the play finds himself recanting his views in the end and turning husband. Human changeability perhaps isn't all together a bad thing. Perhaps our very ability to change offers us escape from our sorrow, our impurity, and from the exposure we feel at being known and recognized as such.

Perhaps those are some of the ideas that are bouncing around the narrator's head, because as section C starts, we have moved into a very different world.

No longer quoting Shakespeare, here the contortions of the first section and the hammering of the second section give way to lyrics bursting with love, freedom, growth, alignment, beauty, and redemption. Interestingly the text does not seem to declare a happily-ever-after scenario, but simply, yet powerfully, speaks of new perspectives on the world and of choices to become "more like" that which we were designed to be. Perspectives have changed: the narrator now seems to be the one being addressed (perhaps by the knowledgable "you" that so frightened the narrator in section A?). The second stanza gives the mic back to the narrator and reveals their new understanding of the connectedness and potentiality of existence. We've come a long way.

Let me know how you think about this analysis of the poetry. I'd be happy to entertain other interpretations. Next time we will see how this lyrical trajectory plays out when put to music.


Mumford & Sons Project

In between dissertation and fatherhood I'd like to keep this blog going by starting a modest project that's been rattling around in my head for a few years now. About five years ago, in the midst of a brutal Spokane, Washington winter, my wife stumbled upon the band Mumford & Sons in the form of isolated songs from their first album (Sigh No More [2009]) played randomly by Pandora. Each song resonated deeply with us, and since that time they have continued to resonate after repeated listening. The next two albums (Babel [2012] and Wilder Mind [2015]) are filled with equally stirring numbers that at various times have strangely impressed me in a variety of ways.

Photo from The Telegraph (April 2015)

I'd like to explore these songs. The thrust of this project is both analytical and interpretational: to turn my musicologist ear to a selection of songs by the band Mumford & Sons for the reason of exploring their musical attributes and nuances. My argument is that the music, both on its own and in conjunction with the words, functions in ways that carry the possibility of meaning, often complex or even contradictory meanings. The music in Mumford & Sons songs seems to communicate.

Before I get started I'd like to lay out a few ground rules:

  1. I am not a certified popular music scholar, nor am I someone who is particularly knowledgable of popular music. (It's actually a family joke. Jess finds my inability to correctly differentiate NSNYC from Backstreet Boys adorably pathetic.) So I will not be making statements about musical influences from or rankings with other popular bands or giving background information on producers, labels, or studios. I also will be using musicological terminology about which a popular music scholar or a fan might take umbrage.
  2. This is a project intended for the layperson. Analysis and critique that consist of torrents of technical jargon are ultimately an isolated and aggravating endeavor and I it is my hope that I can communicate clearly in ways that anyone can understand: the fan, the musicologist, or the curious listener. If I do end up using technical language, it will appear in [brackets]. [Musical hermeneutics should be fun!]
  3. This is not an unbiased analysis. As I've already stated, I have been cultivating a personal connection to this music for the past five years and because of that my analysis will not be free of personal anecdote or subjective interpretation. I am not aspiring to analytical objectivity; rather I seek to share my own thoughts and to reveal both how music can draw our ears into new ways of listening and how our listening can draw meanings from music in ever new and exciting ways.

There! I think this will be a pretty fun endeavor. I'm excited to have a side project that can help me engage with ideas that have been percolating for several years now. It should fit in quite nicely between translating academic German monographs and putting the baby to sleep. (Recently, Jess has discovered that little Penelope will go right to sleep as long as she's listening to Adele's new 25 album. Lights out in about 1.5 songs! #thepowerofmusic #teethingbaby)

Look out for more M&S Project posts in the next few months. The first one on the list is "Sigh No More" from the first album.

See you in 2016!


Gaelic Advent Treats

My thanks to Daily Gaelic - Gàidhlig Gach Latha for a little season's cheer this year in the form of an emailed virtual advent calendar. There's something thoroughly enjoyable about an advent calendar, about the anticipation, the mystery, the big reveal. It's about unwrapping a present.

[Cue pivot chord modulation]

Orthography can be a bit like unwrapping a present. (See what I did there? :)) And sometimes that present seems to have been bound together with layers and layers of duct tape! The relationship between written letters and spoken sounds is not always straightforward even in English, and the rules of the game in other languages has the ability to cause quite a bit of consternation. Scottish Gaelic is notoriously baffling to the neophyte, owing largely to the fact that 18 letters are used to make some 60+ sounds (depending on how you count).

I found the  particular Gaelic advent gift particularly challenging and therefore all the more satisfying after unwrapping; I opened the virtual door to find these words: "Teóclaid teth". Here was my process in unwrapping just the first word.

  1. The "t" is next to a slender vowel "e" which means that it is pronounced like "tch" [tʃʰ].
  2. Because there's an accent over the "ó" the "e" is silent and we get a nice long "o" sound [o:].
  3. The "c" is hard [kʰ].
  4. The "l" is beleaguered by broad vowels on either side "ó...a" so it is technically a velarized alveolar lateral approximant, aka a sort of throaty "l" [ɫ] like in "Allah".
  5. The "a" is silent as it's only there to satisfactorily surround the "l" with broad vowels.
  6. As the vowel of an unstressed syllable, the "i" is a short, humble, little "i" like in "fish".
  7. The "d" is next to a slender vowel "i" which means that it is pronounced like the end of "fridge" [ʤ].
Put that all together and you get something like this [tʃʰo: kʰɫiʤ] or (since IPA tends to be just as confusing as Gaelic) approximately "tcho-klidge".

Now repeat it a few times.

Still need a hint? Look at this picture:


Add "teth" ([tʃʰɛ:] or "tcheh") to the end and you've got "teóclaid teth" or "hot chocolate". I think there's something so satisfying about deciphering this mystery word. I found myself immersed in the raw musicality of the Gaelic language, riding the waves of half-understood orthographic rules, and found myself surprised by the recognition of the familiar in the midst of the strange.

In the midst of an all-too familiar holiday season, perhaps we could remember to accept the traditional as well as the unexpected. And we could have more hot cocoa! :)
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