5.31.2017

I.L.L.-mortal Beloved

I know most people think that musicologists lead a charmed life, but hopefully this epistolary post will show the world some of the trials and tribulations that effect musicologists everywhere. 

28 May 2017, 11:28pm

I'm freaking out! Through no fault of my own, UCSB has put my library account on hold and blocked me from ordering I.L.L.s (Interlibrary Loans)—Just like that, I'm cut off! What about all my books? And the sheet music? No more photocopies from Munich or London?!

I have so many intense emotions right now, emotions that I believe are best expressed through the riveting lyrics and choreographic wizardry of "Makes Me I.L.L." by *NSYNC. Thanks to Jess Roy for giving voice to my pain (and for knowing all the lyrics by heart). "You can say I'm crazy if you want to / That's true, I'm crazy 'bout you / You could say that I'm breakin' down inside / 'Cause I can't see that my lending account is blocked for something I'm pretty sure is all your fault!"


#heartbreak #librarydrama #gradschool #snafu #bookwithdrawal #godhelpmeacceptthethingsicannotcontrol #labcoats



29 May 2017, 4:12am

Thanks to everyone for their support through this trying time. Your sincere concern is what keeps me going. I still haven't heard from I.L.L. Maybe because they're ignoring my constant texts and phone calls. Maybe because it's the middle of the night. Maybe because it's a holiday... who knows!?!?

Alissa "Aune" Aune alerted me to this song by Run-D.M.C. "You Be I.L.L.in'" which captures my state of mind as I grapple with the feelings that come as a result of the library having "left [me] standin' in [my] I.L.L.in' stance."


#wheresmyclosure #hatersgonnahate #buggin #dignifiedweeping #musicologistshavefeelings


29 May 2017, 1:32pm

Well, the folks at I.L.L. have finally contacted me... and things just keep getting worse! They say I didn't return the book before the due date and I say that I did! Can you believe it?!? But you know what? I'm going to decide to put a bold face on it. No more weeping over cereal in the kitchen in the middle of the night for me! I'm going to brave this new chapter in my life with all the heroism I can muster! That's why this Gaelic folksong feels so right: "'I.L.L.ean bithibh sunndach" enjoins Scottish immigrants to be happy as they sail across the ocean... leaving their beloved books, I mean, country behind... and to embrace their new adventure like...

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!

I can't do it!!!! Please I.L.L., check your stacks again! Don't send me to the metaphorical Canada of booklessness!



#acceptance #poiseinthefaceofadversity #gaidhlig #harsh #happymusicsadlyrics #afraidtocheckemail


31 May 2017, 9:31pm

Um... This is all quite embarrassing... It turns out I may in fact be responsible for this little I.L.L. snafu after all...

You see, I turned in a book by Sándor Balogh entitled Moldvai csángómagyar furulyás dallamok és énekek on May 26. The only problem is that that book wasn't due then. The one that was due was by Sándor Balogh entitled Moldvai hangszeres dallamok... Which I found on my shelf yesterday after the nice people at the library emailed me.

...

I blame the California public school system!! Yeah! If I had been given more quality instruction in Hungarian in my teens, this sort of thing wouldn't have happened! Come on Proposition 98! I thought you had my back!!

...

You know what? Enough finger pointing! This is silly. I accept the blame here. I also admit that I acted rather rashly the past couple of days. I said things to the UCSB library, terrible things. I only hope we can patch things up. We used to be so close. We used to have such great times. Remember all those books you lent me? And then how I returned them in a timely manner? Those were the days! I want to have that again! Here's a song to express my hope in a future with you: "I.L.L. Be There" by Jackson 5. "Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter / Togetherness, well it's all I'm after, / Just call my name, and I.L.L. be there."



#imsorry #givemeanotherchance #missinyou #songsaboututopianegalitarianism #outofexcuses #agoodhardlookinthemirror #hungarianflutemusic #beginningtohopeagain #agglutinativelanguagesarenojoke


I hope this story shines as a light to anyone who has gone through or is currently going through serious book withdrawal. Just take it one day at a time.

4.02.2017

Illiteracy in Worship

In my work as a music director at a Protestant church here in Santa Barbara, congregants or choir members will every now and again forward me articles or blog posts that they think I might find interesting. The other day I was sent 15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals. The title pretty much says it all. The author, a chap named Jonathan, describes himself as "bothered by the pervasiveness of commercial contemporary music and the arrogance with which tradition is discarded and ignored." I read it. Then I read A Response to "15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals", a rebuttal by a guy named Brad who heads his post with a smokey black and white photo of circling birds with the words "Worship Wars" written across it. I read that one too.



I don't usually engage in online debates. But these articles got me thinking about what I see as the central idea of Christian worship, which neither of these authors get to the heart of. Read them first if you care to know where I'm starting from.

The Rejection of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

Let me give two examples of what I mean by illiteracy in the context of worship. The first is pro-hymnal and the second pro-screen.

1. Perhaps there's a person used to the safety and familiarity of hymnals is put in the position of having to aurally pick up an unknown praise song that they find rhythmically challenging (lots of syncopation), formally ambiguous (verse, chorus, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge... huh?), and devoid of any of the visual/aural cues that hymnals provide (those open-ended I-IV-I-IV vamping intros). Add to that the idea that this person's ears may be unused to amplified instruments, their eyes unused to following words on screens and catching cues from the lead singers, and their bodies unused to dancing and hand raising even as everyone around them starts jumping and clapping. They stand there silent and overwhelmed. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are, in this context, illiterate. And they reject it as worship.

2. Perhaps there's a person who is used to the suggestiveness and abandon of praise songs and screen-projected lyrics who is put in a position of having to look up a song in a hymnal (the red one, not the blue one!) and to quickly get to the right number as the organ (an instrument they only associate with horror movies) starts bellowing. They finally find the hymn, only to be faced with an accusatory page filled with staff notation that they have little idea of how to read ("Let's see... Every Good Boy Does Fine..."). Everyone around them is plowing on (it's verse 2 now, so keep up!), and this person settles down to silently reading the words or checking the bulletin to cue up the next hymn so they aren't behind next time. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are also, in this context, illiterate. And they too reject it as worship.

Both of these people are out of their elements. The unfamiliar contexts in which they find themselves feel foreign, and as foreigners they become confused, lost, and embarrassed.

And that's ok.

The Acceptance of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

It's ok because illiteracy and worship are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. Instead of signaling the failure of worship and the rejection of discomfort, these uncomfortable experiences offer worshipers an opportunity to get to the heart of who they are, who God is, and how worship is the language that binds the two together. Maybe it goes something like this:

"This is not worship! Everything is unfamiliar! I feel like I don't belong with these people! I feel like an idiot! It hurts that I can't do it with the ease, confidence, and joy that usually accompanies my weekly acts of corporate worship!

...[breath]...

"And God is here.

"He loves me when I am strong and when I am weak, comfortable and in distress, smart and stupid, happy and sad. His loving presence through the Holy Spirit is not contingent upon any earthly context. He loves me even in this strange and imperfect place. And this discomfort I feel is an opportunity, not to reject this experience, but to recognize that the desire, even the frustrated desire, that I have in my heart to give my best self to the God who made me is proof of my longing for Him, a longing he planted in my heart and has tended all my life.

"God is indeed here... 

"I will make a choice and worship! Perhaps I will rest quietly in the thought that His presence is ever present and ever calling out. Perhaps I will gaze in detached wonder at those around me who are fluent in this style of worship and rejoice in their joy. Or I will redouble my efforts and focus my ears to grab hold of the slippery or I will ask my neighbor for help in following the notation. Or I will kneel. Or cover my face with my hands. Or dance. Or clap. Or cry. Or laugh.

"God is here.

"And His presence is all that is needful for worship. Indeed, my own discomfort works to make me all the more aware of Him."



Issues at Stake

This seems right to me. It seems more productive and profound than a surface-level battle over the relative worshipfullness of PowerPoint. But it also reveals why these debates over music-making are so volatile and why they have torn churches apart. Here are three issues that I believe emerge from this discussion on illiteracy in the context of worship.

  1. Worship is an active and individual choice. In the end, it is not about hymnals or screens, old songs or new, pipe organ or cajón, choir director or music leader, technology working or technology failing (by "technology" I mean everything from projector screens to microphones to organs to paved roads to writing systems to mental signification—think about it)... In the end, I say, it's about nothing more or less than the question God has been putting to us all from the beginning: "Where are you? Are you hiding from me, thinking that uncomfortable circumstances or unintended failures separate us? Or are you searching for me just as much amidst the rubble as you do amidst security? Because I will never rest until we are together." Don't blame the hymnals and don't blame the screens. Be present and choose.
  2. Churches should be places to learn together. Going back to my two uncomfortable and fictional examples, if familiarity does not eventually come and the barrage of newness in unremitting, they are liable to become overwhelmed. Familiarity is a process of learning. Learning is about coming to grips with our limitations, trying, failing, trying again, and failing. It comes down to the teachers (the leaders, both musical and otherwise) and the peers (the literate congregation) creating an environment of acceptance and patience. (In my experience, churches can be notoriously bad at this.) I would go so far as to say that this bumpy road toward learning is holy. Jesus came to earth as an illiterate and helpless infant (from the Latin "infans" = "the voiceless one") and went through all the ups and downs of learning throughout his time on Earth. His entire life was a life of worship. So to are ours.
  3. Maybe Western Christianity would not be so afraid of the discomfort of illiteracy if we dealt with our unhealthy issues with emotion, particularly negative emotion. For all the hymns and praise songs that are based on the Psalms (a perdurable argument for both sides of the fence), there is a definite paucity when it comes to themes of rage, despair, or grief. These are raw expressions of a worshiping soul that is in the midst of struggling with what one could call an illiteracy with human existence. Few churches dare to allow these thoughts into their hallowed doors. The Man of Sorrows (a frightfully passionate person who felt the entire gamut of human feelings) might be frustrated by our emotionally narrow view of "praise". (On the other hand, depression and self-abnegation are not Christian virtues. This is a very easy path for religion to take, but it ends up, in my opinion, replacing looking for God and being honest with our present state of being with ignoring Him in favor of licking old wounds and focusing on failure, both ours and that of everyone around us.)
Those are my thoughts. 


11.21.2016

Goetz's Piano Quintet: Gotta Have That Bass

The term "piano quintet" actually designates a variety of five-person ensemble combinations. As mentioned earlier, by far the most standard group involves piano + string quartet or piano-violin-violin-viola-cello. However, other groupings are possible: piano-violin-viola-viola-cello (Paul Juon), piano-violin-viola-cello-cello (Henri-Jean Rigel), piano-oboe-violin-viola-cello (Théodore Dubois), piano-flute-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), piano-clarinet-horn-violin-cello (Zdeněk Fibich), piano-oboe-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Beethoven), etc.

The standard ensemble of piano + string quartet has the advantage of matching the piano's wide range with four instruments that cover the same tonal space... almost. Truth be told, the piano actually goes more than an octave lower than the lowest note on the cello. A handful of composers have apparently felt that the strings should match the piano in the lower regions, and so have written piano quintets for piano-violin-viola-cello-double bass.

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz was a German-Swiss composer who wrote such a quintet. Take a listen to the opening of the first movement. Throughout the sombre, moiling introduction, you may be able to detect the double bass grumbling along down below. Then, at 1:34, the mood changes... (I'd suggest listening at least until 3:41, when we hit the repeat sign.)


The drama promised and forewarned in the slow introduction, bursts from its proverbial dam and flows along "Allegro con fuoco", lively and with fire! Weeeeeee! In those downward, scalar gestures that begin the section, you can really hear the double bass go. To my ears it adds serious "heft", a word I use for the sense of weight being heaved about, but also for the sort of raspy, onomatopoeic quality you hear when the double bass bow digs into the strings. This instrument reminds you that bowed string instruments make their sound by rubbing or scraping wires, hairs, guts, or other strings perpendicularly against each other, a fact that the melodiousness of the violin, viola, and even cello seem to mask.

One more example: here's the last movement, a sprightly yet still hefty sort of dance. The double bass has some great moments, adding some weight to the section marked "pesante" or ponderous at 0:37 (which is an interesting juxtaposition of weightiness and dancing rhythms), doubling the cello at the octave in the fugal section (starting 1:33, bass in at 1:41ish), the weird, trembling fade out at 2:55, and of course, the killer dash to the ending starting at 4:40.



Check out the other movements as well! Have a grounded, bass-heavy day!

11.03.2016

Arensky's Piano Quintet: [BONUS] Creepy Waltz

I didn't do anything for Halloween this year. Penny, while adorable in her owl costume, is not big on knocking on strangers' doors nor on eating candy with her baby teeth. Plus, Jess and I consider the day only an annoying, loud, orange-and-black stepping stone to Thanksgiving, Fall's real holiday. #hewentthere #nohalloweenspirit #oldfogy

Hocus Pocus (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

However, I'll give a nod to Halloween with this little "trick and treat" (see what I did there?): a spooky waltz from Arensky's Piano Quintet. Now, I already did a post on this composition where I talked about the fugue theme from the final movement. But I couldn't pass up this fascinating moment in the midst of the second movement. This movement is a Theme and Variations, meaning, you hear a theme at the beginning and then the rest of the piece is reiterations of that theme varied in a variety of various ways. It's like someone trying on different costumes, one after the other (not unlike a picky Halloween-er).

Press play. Listen up to 0:31. That melody in the first violin is the Theme. (It's actually a French folk song from maybe the 1400s called Sur le pont d'Avignon, j'ai ouï chanter la belle.) If you keep listening after that, the piano enters, playing the theme quite clearly and prominently, and constituting the First Variation. Et cetera. Et cetera.



Now check out the Sixth Variation. It starts around 3:16. The meter has now changed from duple to triple, as heard in the "oom-pah-pah" accompaniment in the piano and pizzicato cello. Meanwhile, the piano's upper part gracefully glides about like a solitary ballroom dancer. The effect is actually rather pleasant...

But then, the other three string players enter. In unison. In long, drawn out notes. And so quietly you might not notice it until it's been happening for a while. And then you wonder how long this sighing specter has been looking over your shoulder. Eeeek!

But it gets a little creepier. Because the piano waltzer doesn't seem to realize that they aren't alone. It doesn't acknowledge this austere presence and dances on, oblivious to the ghostly melody wafting in like a chilly breeze from the other side. Double eeeeek!

And then, with a bone chilling gasp, you realize that the unison strings are actually playing the original Theme, but with the duration augmented (that is, elongated) to the point at which it's almost unrecognizable. That sweet and sad melody that you just got to appreciate from 0:00 to 0:31 appears here in ghastly form. The situation is punctuated by the continued presence of the unsuspecting (or is it complicit?) music-box dancer. Triple eeeeeek!

Anastasia (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Wow. Maybe I like Halloween more than I thought... I will say that this musical interpretation could fit in well with Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the grotesque, a term he developed in the study of Renaissance carnivals and a time when weird festivals like Halloween actually had important cultural significance. (Check out his introduction to Rabelais and His World.)

Have a Happy November!

11.02.2016

Arensky's Piano Quintet: The Little Fugue that Could

The last movement of Arensky's Piano Quintet made me laugh. When I first heard it there was something rather humorous about ending a grand composition with a movement half as long as any of the others that starts as a powerful fugue "in modo antico" (meaning "in olden style") that runs out of steam after less than a minute. What was Anton thinking?!

First off, to write music "in olden style" during the Romantic era usually means you're about to hear some fugues. (In case you don't know, a fugue is when a melodic theme enters one instrument at a time in independent layers. It gets very dense very quickly.) Fugues are difficult to write (and difficult to listen to unless you practice) due to the very real possibility of cacophony when more than one melody is sounding at once, requiring a composer of exceptional skill. (This is part of the reason J.S. Bach, the mind-bendingest fugue-o-phile of them all, was revered in the history-conscious nineteenth century, and has remained so to this day.) So all this "in modo antico" in the last movement had me primed to expect some major counterpoint!

But... That doesn't actually seem to happen. First off, just by glancing at the average length of movements, the final one stands out for coming in at around 3 minutes, while the first three of the quintet average 6.5 minutes. Secondly... well, go ahead and give the piece a listen. Note the powerful beginning and, also, when the mood changes. I'll wait...



Finished? Ok! It's a nice piece, yes? Bold at the beginning. Then lush. Then a scintillating and joyous ending. But, what about that "in modo antico"? It starts as a long-striding fugue with a strong, easy-to-catch theme. And then at about 45 seconds, it just stops. Fugue done! And what does the rest of the movement consist of, you may ask? The lyrical middle part that builds to a lovely climax is actually a second movement quotation of the theme that is put through variations. Then the joyous part at 2:08 is a first movement quotation of the main theme complete with identical ending.

It was as though Arensky said to himself, "For this last movement I will write a fugue in the grand style of Bach! [The sounds of writing, frustrated "humpfs" from composer, the crumpling of paper.] You know what? Forget it! I've got about 45 seconds of fugue; why not just get this thing done and bring back some of those sweet Romantic-sounding moments I wrote from earlier movements?"

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as Scriabin and Roslavets.


That's how I heard it at first. But I've actually changed my mind. The actual fugal part of Arensky's finale may be short, but the true significance resides in the theme itself. Because if you listen to the whole composition, you realized that you've heard that theme before. Check out the first 5 seconds of the piece, a salutation in the piano that bursts onto the scene without further elaboration.


It's the fugue theme!

Now listen to a grand climax that brings the Theme and Variations movement to a fierce halt. Start at 4:20. It's the beginning of the seventh variation with some galloping triplets in the piano with the theme entering staggered first on the viola, then violin 2, then violin 1. (It's not technically a fugue, but the effect is rather dense and contrapuntal.) The intensity increases to 4:48 where, in a fit of fortissimo, the piano plays some dramatic chords, that are answered by lunging runs in the strings before everything comes crashing down in a fortississimo haze.



It's the fugue theme!

This knowledge will change the way you hear. The appearance of this odd fragment in the first and second movements will be heard as presages of the final fugue theme. And the return of sections from the first and second themes in the last movements can then be heard as simply returning the favor. The stunted last movement becomes a matter of equilibrium and retrospection. You could even say that it reframes "in olden style" to draw attention to the temporal nature of the musical experience... #mindblown


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