Hurdy-Gurdy Sounds

In elementary school I was loaned a CD-ROM from our school librarian that was a virtual tour of the musical instruments of the world. Searching by continent, by instrument family, or alphabetically, I explored an interactive encyclopedia that introduced me to the sights and sounds of the Arabic qanun, Native American plains flute, Chinese bianzhong, and European flageolet. It was MIM in computer form. And then I found the page on the hurdy-gurdy: It sounded like a pugnacious cross between a bagpipe and a harpsichord playing a raspy folk tune while accompanied by a sort of buzzing/barking/beat-boxing. What's not to love?! Needless to say, I was smitten! #instrumentcrush My infatuation with the hurdy-gurdy has been rather one-sided all these years, and despite my intense feelings I have not taken our relationship to the next level... Until now! That's right! Early next year yours truly will be in possession of his very own, custom made, genuine hurdy-gurdy, lovingly built by the good people at Altarwind Music in Oregon. I'm so excited!! (Don't worry, my wife knows and is cool with it.)

So in preparation for my instrument adventures next year, here's some info on the hurdy-gurdy that focuses on the wide range of sounds that it makes and the contexts in which these sounds had cultural capital.


Particulars and Generalities

What is a hurdy-gurdy? That seems like a good place to start. The hurdy-gurdy is a musical instrument with regional variants appearing across eastern and western Europe. Here are a few monickers to give you a taste of its breadth: hurdy-gurdy (English), vielle à roue (French), Drehleier (German), tekerő" (Hungarian), ghironda (Italian), vièrlerète (Belgian), zanfoña (Spanish), sanfona (Portugese), brenka (Basque), viola de roda (Catalan), ninera (Slovakian), lira korbowa (Polish), колёсная лира (Russian). 

As implied by several of these names (#etymologygame) this instrument has something to do with a "turning wheel". In basic terms, the hurdy-gurdy is a pear- or guitar-shaped resonating box strung with tunable melody and drone strings and fixed with a hand-cranked, rosined wheel that acts like a never-ending, circular violin bow while the melody strings pass through a tangent box where pitches are raised or lowered by means of keys. The following section has descriptions of some of the instrument's different sounds and historical contexts. Be sure to click on the links to hear/see some sampled YouTube videos. It's easier to see it in action than read a description about it!

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Organistrum: The Two-Seater

According to evidence preserved in manuscripts and carved into the walls of the cathedrals, the Ur-ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy was called an organistrum and emerged around the 11th century. As seen here played by two of the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse, this massive instrument took two people to operate: one to turn the wheel and the other to lift tangent pins. (The tangent box was eventually inverted, allowing an individual finger to push up a key, rather than require a whole hand to pull up a key.) Apparently these pins altered the pitches of all three melody strings simultaneously and produced parallel harmonies. This made the organistrum the perfect church instrument, particularly for playing organum, a technique used to thicken chant texture by coupling the melody at a given interval. By the 14th century changes in liturgical polyphony would require a more complex and polyphonic instrument, a need that was answered by the organ, and the organistrum ceased to function as a church instrument. Clips: 1) the organistrum in concert in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, 2) French reconstruction with good closeups of the mechanism, and 3) the most adorable demo couple I've ever seen! I'll let you know how the congregation at the Presbyterian church I work in handles next year's all-hurdy-gurdy Easter service... :)

 

Buzzing Bridges and Barking Dogs

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

One of the hurdy-gurdy's most distinctive features since the Renaissance is the buzzing bridge. (It's first visual depiction seems to be from Heironymous Bosch's (ca. 1450-1516) Garden of Earthly Delights.) The way it works is that there is a drone string supported by a specially constructed bridge (called the "chien" or "dog" in French terminology) that is uneven, only connected to the instrument by a single foot. Changes in wheel velocity set the dog "barking" with a characteristic buzzing sound. (Sometimes I think it sounds like a scraping cabasa.) Two examples of this in action should clarify: 1) An Italian ghironda with slow motion and 2) demonstrations of how wrist action effects crank velocity and leads to various patterns. This adds a completely new dimension to the music because the rhythmic buzzing of the right hand operates independently of the left hand's manipulation of the key box and they can interact in so many different ways. To give some context of this happening in a piece, check out 1) Eric Raillard playing a Morvan traditional tune with various chien patterns, 2) Nigel Eaton playing a dance piece that adds the chien around 1:09 to great effect, and 3) TOMO playing a French folk melody with chien and what I assume is a kick drum.

 
Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785). Link

Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785). Link

French Aristocratic Hipsters

By the 18th century the hurdy-gurdy had a well established reputation as a low class instrument fit for peasants and beggars. But around this same time the French aristocracy developed an intense enthusiasm for pastoral diversions (just without the dirt and poverty). Operas and ballets depicted idealized shepherds and shepherdesses, rococo art emphasized stylized tendrils as design elements, and folk instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue) and bagpipe (cabrette) found themselves in vogue with the highest echelons of society. (Here is an example of Sean Folsom playing a folksong that includes the vielle and cabrette together. Now that I write that sentence, I'm not sure how that's humanly possible...) Aristocrats actually took the time to became skilled at playing this instrument, multiple treatises appeared giving detailed instruction, and court-sponsored composers wrote substantial and serious pieces. Check out Robert A. Greene's The Hurdy-Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France (1995) for all the info on this period you can handle. Listening to this music I notice the importance of dance as well as lavish ornamentation and emotional nuance. Clips: 1) some pièces de charactéres by Jean-Baptiste Dupuits (1715-1758), 2) a movement from a trio sonata for two vielles and basso continuo by Jacques-Christoph Naudot (1690-1752), and 3) Antonio Vivaldi's (1678-1741) beloved Seasons arranged for vielle à roue by Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782) because why not?

 

Schubert's Romantic Numbness

Minstrel (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

Minstrel (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

The nineteenth century developed a Romantic view of folk culture with conflicted, nostalgic, and nationalistic overtones. While in many ways this was the age of the piano (where Industrial Revolution met the Age of Sentimentality), the hurdy-gurdy continued to have a symbolic and emotional association and operated as a musical trope. For instance, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set poems by Wilheml Müller (1794-1827) for a song cycle for piano and solo voice called Winterreise or Winter's Journey. It's a painfully tragic song cycle for solo voice and piano which ends with Der Leiermann or The Hurdy-Gurdy Player.  

Over there behind the village / Stands a hurdy-gurdy man / And with stiff fingers / Turns over what he can.
Barefoot on the ice / He rocks back and forth / And his little plate / Always remains empty.
No one wants to hear him, / No one wants to look at him, / And the dogs growl / Around the old man.
And he lets it happen / Everything turns as it will / And his hurdy-gurdy / Never stands still.
Wonder of the ancients / Shall I go with you? / Would you play my songs / On your hurdy-gurdy as well?

Schubert sets this icy text very starkly by evoking the hurdy-gurdy's drone and repeating a spooky melodic fragment. For a cycle that has traversed so many emotions, this concluding piece falls deep into emotional and musical numbness. Here's a clip of Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim performing it. Interestingly, Matthias Loibner arranged this composition for solo singer with hurdy-gurdy accompaniment which makes for a very different sound world. It makes me aware of the emotional flatlining that awaits the narrator at the end. Here's Der Leiermann accompanied by a Leiermann!

 
Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Gothic Nostalgia in Folk/Medieval Metal

Much has happened since the 19th century, but it's interesting to note an enduring strain of nostalgia for folk culture that continues to utilize the hurdy-gurdy. Recently this has surfaced in various sub-genres of heavy metal. Sometimes known as folk metal or medieval metal or German folk-rock metal, this 1990s European fusion melds together the guitar, drums, vocals, and head-banging of heavy metal with traditional instruments like tin whistles, violins, harps, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdies. Here are some examples: 1) Swiss band (pronounce it el-VAY-tee) Eluveitie's song Inis Mona, 2) German band Subway to Sally's song Besser Du Rennst, 3) Belgian band Ithilien's song Blindfolded, and 4) German band Saltatio Mortis's song Hochzeitstanz. If you think about all the abrasive and edgy sounds the hurdy-gurdy is capable of, it makes sense that it would find a place in this type of music. I personally find it difficult to pick out the sound of the hurdy-gurdy through the thick textures. But there's more to heavy metal than just the sound and I would venture a guess that the hurdy-gurdy lends a lot of visual interest. It comes across as a medieval contraption and, because it is less well known than the bagpipe, its marginality has an air of mystique.

The hurdy-gurdy also plays a part in more intimate settings. Here the theatricality is toned down, but the strange sound and sight of the instrument keep a toe in the world of heavy metal. Two examples are 1) Anna Murphy playing A Rose for Epona and 2) Patty Gurdy (that's right) of the German pirate folk metal band Storm Seeker (that's right) playing a cover of Sweet Dreams.

 

Experimental Virtuosity

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

As the example of the buzzing bridge shows, the hurdy-gurdy, already a pretty complicated machine, can become even more complicated. Just take for example the Full Montey hurdy-gurdy by Altarwind Music that has all the add-ons: dozens of strings, buzzing bridges, capos, on/off switches, sympathetic strings, amp hookups, fretboards, cup holders, bells/whistles, spinning hubcaps, etc. (Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this description. See Altarwind website for details.) These possibilities have caught the imagination of various composers/performers seeking new and experimental sounds. Matthias Loibner (b. 1969) sums it up well when he states in this recording at an aCentral Folque concert, "I will start somewhere and I will end somewhere, but I am not sure about it." Ben Grossman considers the hurdy-gurdy an "acoustic synthesizer" that has much to offer for "early, traditional, experimental, and ambient" musics. Here he is with an improvisation and explanation for TEDxWaterloo. Stevie Wishart (b. 1969) sees the hurdy-gurdy and other marginal instruments from the forgotten past as having greater potential for innovation because of the lack of present-day conventions, which opens the door to improvisation. She teamed up with Fred Frith (b. 1949) and Carla Kihlstedt (b. 1971) to record a series of improvisations: here's one called Aller Retour with the hurdy-gurdy entering around 1:27.


I'll see you in January for the unboxing of my hurdy-gurdy!

A Parent's Guide to 'A Young People's Guide to the Orchestra'

Perhaps you haven't heard... toddlers have some pretty strong opinions! Lately my two-year-old, Penny, has been weighing in on everything from who gets to screw on the lid of her water bottle (her), what we should eat for dinner (strawberries with yogurt), where we should go for an afternoon outing (Target), and who should sit in her car seat (me, but eventually her, but then she gets to put on the shoulder straps and buckle the top clasp no matter what!). It makes sense—her world is daily expanding through new experiences and experiments, which means this young person is in a state of continual boundary creation, testing, and maintenance. Sometimes all at once. No wonder she tries to up the number of bed time books to six!

Musical preferences are no less subject to the toddler's strong opinions. By and large my daughter's tastes tend toward "children's music": a fluid genre that includes, among other things, African American spirituals, nonsense songs, English Puritan nursery rhymes, anti-war songs by Pete Seeger, Japanese folk songs, and newly-composed works about everything from public transportation to families of ducks, and personal hygiene to lovable arctic aquatic mammals and their daily schedules. This music is characteristically catchy, repetitive, and singable (and on many occasions has miraculously deescalated tantrums during long car trips).

Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny feels much differently about "daddy music", by which I basically mean "classical" (though there's also a good mix of Gaelic EDM, Hungarian folk bands, and whatever freaky magic Matthias Loibner does with his magnificent Drehleier). Often the act of turning on flute fantasias by Telemann in the car results in a flurry of protestations from the back seat followed by heated negotiations. Indeed, "classical music" tends to be a hard sell for toddlers; very broadly speaking, the sort of musics that fall into this category tend to be long, developmental, enigmatic, and played on a wide range of old instruments.

This is not a post about the aesthetic merits or shortcomings of "children's music". It's also not about the "Mozart effect" and scientific or pseudoscientific arguments for guilting parents into playing more Eine kleine Nachtmusik. It's not even about how Raffi is somehow still recording and performing, and how his eponymous "Down by the Bay" is a song that maddeningly straddles realism and nonsense! This is a post about how I shared something I love with my two-year-old daughter, something that, because of a little parental participation, she has come to enjoy. Here's my guide for engaging your toddler with "classical music".

I started with a specific piece of music: A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra or as I call it in this post YPGO written by British composer Benjamin Britten in 1945. Despite the clear appeal to children in the title and Britten having written it on commission for educational purposes, it seems unlikely that my daughter would choose it over, say, Elizabeth Mitchell's "Little Bird". At face value, YPGO sounds "classically" complicated: it's a twenty-minute series of thirteen variations and a concluding fugue based on a rondeau by seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell written by a twentieth-century composer performed by a room filled with about twenty-five different types of acoustic instruments under the leadership of a stick-waving interpreter!! Sheesh... #canibeexcused

Take courage! What I discovered with Penny was that those very complications listed above which seem to discourage toddler (and sometimes adult) involvement are exactly those things which can hook the young person's interest. You could say that this piece of music has a lot going on. Rather than be intimidated by that, try to see that as the very point of the game. Here's how:

  1. Active Participation or Make it fun! The first thing to do is ditch the audience etiquette we associate with "classical music" concerts, namely, sitting silently in a darkened concert hall in detached cerebral contemplation waiting for the right moment to applaud. Rather stifling, even for adults. My solution is to hold off on the live concert experience and instead find a high-quality video of YPGO online to watch at home. This way you can interact with you child and the musical experience with as much enthusiasm as is necessary to keep things interesting. Penny sat on my lap, I opened a YouTube window, and these are the ideas that I kept in mind to actively participate with my daughter and the concert.
  2. Performative Listening or Use your eyes and say what you see! I developed this idea from teaching "Music Appreciation" to undergraduates at UCSB [link to post]. An orchestra is such a visual experience: bows gliding up and down, gleaming metal surfaces, dancing fingers, crashing cymbals, gesticulating conductor. It's well worth drawing attention to these things as the camera pans around the ensemble and focuses in on a particular section. These observations do not need to be particularly profound or insightful. Penny and I talked about how some instruments were big and some small, some performers had curly hair and some wore glasses, how some instruments were brown or silver or gold or black, and how some instruments are tucked under chins or held between legs or laid upon laps or held in front, etc. etc.
  3. Physical Mimicry or Use your eyes and do what you see! Who doesn't love to "air guitar"? #bohemianrhapsody Observations of how performers hold their different instruments easily morphs into a game of charades. All it really takes is for the parent to initiate by moving their hands and arms or with the use of a prop like a pencil or spoon. Moreover, the panning of the camera to different instruments will keep the game fresh and dynamic as you and your toddler quickly switch positions from sliding trombones to transverse flute to sawing violin to enthusiastic xylophone.
  4. Intuitive Listening or Use your ears and say what you hear! I also developed this idea from my collegiate teaching. The human auditory system comes prewired to detect even the smallest changes in sound. It's how we detect sarcasm in a person's speech patterns, the location of someone talking in a building, the presence of an ambulance. In the case of music, "classical music" in general is known for wide variation, often utilizing every shade of fast-slow, up-down, loud-quiet, happy-sad, etc. Once you notice a change (and in YPGO they are rather blatant) describe it using whatever words or phrases you can. It does not need to be technical. It can simply be descriptive. Or emotional. Or pictorial. The cool thing with watching a video of a concert is that often when there is an important change in the music the cameras will highlight the source of the sound giving a visual correspondence to an aural event. Here's some examples from my time with Penny:

"Wow, that sound was high like a bird!" [Camera focused on piccolo.]

"Those ones play very low because they are so big." [Group of double bassists.]

"They are going a lot faster now!" [Bows jerking up and down quickly.]

"Those ones play loud and strong!" [Group of brass players.]

"This part is very quiet. I wonder when it will get loud again." [String players motionless.]

"It's like they're swinging on a big swing!" [Clarinets alternately playing up and down.]

"I think it sounds like galloping horses." [Trumpets and snare drum clipping along.]

"I'm lost at this part. It sounds like lots of people whispering at the same time." [???]

That last example is extremely important. Whatever you do, don't make it seem like you are only participating in this experience because you have complete confidence in what's going on at all times. In fact, it's best if you aren't for the sake of your toddler. Sometimes the music will sound vague or overly-complicated and you will get lost. Own it! Show your toddler that it's ok to be lost. It's musical hide-and-seek! It's part of the game!

Below is the video I used with Penny. The music starts at 2:00 and they didn't get as good a shot of the percussion section in action as I would have liked, but besides that, I would highly recommend it! Good camera work, lots to see and hear, and very well played. If this one doesn't strike your fancy, find your own, for whatever reasons suit you.

My hope is that this approach to listening to "classical music" with a toddler sounds doable to any parent out there. You don't have to be a musicologist to do it. You don't even need to know the names of the instruments. Or the form of the piece. Or the socio-historical context of YPGO and its meaning for England at the close of WWII. All you need to do is actively participate with your toddler on a visually and aurally interesting journey. If you don't know the way, be attentive and courageous in the face of the unknown and point out all the things you notice. Show young people that life is full of wondrous and exciting things and that given a context of safety, curiosity, fun, and empathy, everyone is equipped to make something of it. #babysteps

Music 15: Teaching and Learning

This last week marks the last time in my UCSB graduate student career that I will teach "Music 15", more commonly known as "Music Appreciation". The concept of "Music Appreciation" has a long history that presents particular problems to twenty-first century graduate students and their undergraduate pupils. Around the beginning of the 1900s philharmonic orchestras in Europe and the US began to cater to wider audiences by offering pre-concert lectures aimed at giving unfamiliar listeners—children, lower-class workers, etc.—the active listening skills, musical nomenclature, and conceptual frames necessary for making sense of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Listz's Les Prèludes, and other "great" works by "great" composers. A good example of these efforts is the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts, lovingly developed in the 20s by conductor/composer "Uncle" Ernest Schelling who used "PowerPoint" presentations done on illuminated glass slides, developed silly mnemonic devices to recognize themes ("This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished..."), and made use of various props. (Interestingly, the early Soviet government initiated a massive Music Appreciation program to involve the proletariat in "high" art, even during the famine and winter of the Civil War following the October Revolution!)

"Uncle" Ernest Schelling (1876-1939) and his well-dressed dog. He seems to have the sense of humor necessary to appeal to an audience of children. I'd love to write a book on this guy and spend some time in the University of Maryland archive collection.

"Uncle" Ernest Schelling (1876-1939) and his well-dressed dog. He seems to have the sense of humor necessary to appeal to an audience of children. I'd love to write a book on this guy and spend some time in the University of Maryland archive collection.

A century later, we still have Music Appreciation, both as part of educational outreach at orchestras, such as the New York Phil, and as undergraduate courses at universities, such as UCSB. I have taught this class (which has a capacity of ~70 in the summer to ~450 per quarter during the school year) seven times as a teaching assistant and six times as the lecturer/associate. In the summer of 2015 I spearheaded the department's effort to revamp the course and I've been fine tuning it ever since in the hopes that it's future will be bright. Here are some of our pedagogical concerns and solutions.

  • Music + Culture: Often "Classical" music is touted as a timeless, universal music, which has tends to make it untouchable and unrelatable. It was important to put this music back into a historical and cultural context to show how musical choices had value for those making and consuming it. This approach speaks to me because context is one of the things that excites me about music, it was possible get away from historical teleology by making units based on cultural issues, and it allowed me to get away from canonical pieces and composers (I developed a Music and Childhood unit from sections of my dissertation).  
  • Four Ways of Listening: It wasn't enough to have students learn to recognize selected "masterpieces" by ear using terminology (eg. melisma, sonata form, pizzicato, Klangfarbenmelodie) that they could barely define, not to mention use in a cogent sentence. Not to say that critical listening isn't important, but it should be taught in a more holistic way, which I divided into:
  1. Technical/Intuitive Listening: The use of any technical language a student may have from exposure to music—there's always one kid who raises their hand and starts talking about cadential hemiolas!—but also encouraging students to make attempts to put words to what they hear the music doing in an intuitive sense—getting louder, speeding up, building in energy, getting confusing, playing a singable tune. All of those observations are an attempt to interact with the development in the music and it's vital to encourage the innate human ability to notice sonic changes. Specialized language can come later.
  2. Performative Listening: We always try to either do live demos or watch high quality videos. Noticing the performers and the audience—how they are placed, what they look like, how they're behaving, what they're playing—emphasizes the human agency of music, reveals cultural values, and adds visual interest to a sonic experience. (There's nothing quite like seeing a small bass drum player pounding away for the end of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and have to leap upon his instrument in the end to mute the sound!)
  3. Extra-Musical Listening: Words, costumes, backdrops, stories, expressions, pyrotechnics! Some genres (opera, character pieces, tone poems) revel in the extra-musical combination of media. Other genres (absolute symphonies and chamber music) go out of their way to try to avoid these things. Noticing either stance gives us more insight into cultural values and context.
  4. Cultural Listening: This is the backbone of Music 15 as I taught it. I always tell my students that the stories we discuss are only part of the complex story, but also that knowing about the context of a piece provides a frame of reference that can change how you hear it. Palestrina's beautiful a cappella masses go hand in hand with Counter-Reformation views of Catholicism's role as spiritual orthodoxy. Berlioz's creepy finale makes sense in a context of Romanticism and gothic novels. Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositions mesh with the cultural disillusionment in the wake of WWI and the advent of composition as an academic discipline.
Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) directed the NYPhil's Young Person's Concerts from 1958-72, which were broadcasted on TV. Iconic.

Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) directed the NYPhil's Young Person's Concerts from 1958-72, which were broadcasted on TV. Iconic.

 Good luck Music 15! May future graduate students appreciate you (in all senses of that word).

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.

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 melody 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. Or breathe.

"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.

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.

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.

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.)

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 (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!

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.

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...

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!

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.

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

De Castillon's Piano Quintet: Just Wonderful

That's right: just wonderful! I barely have anything else to say about it. Only that Alexis de Castillon was a short-lived composer whose Opus 1 truly touches my heart. The opening melody, heard many times thereafter, suggests to me that paradoxical strength that lies in fragility, a bold yet tender embrace.

Here's the first movement played by Timothy Kwok and the Romer Quartet. I hope you enjoy.

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.

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.

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.

Enjoy!

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.

"Much Ado About Nothing" by Robert Smirke (1753-1845) via Royal Shakespeare Company Collection. Dogberry seems on edge.

"Much Ado About Nothing" by Robert Smirke (1753-1845) via Royal Shakespeare Company Collection. Dogberry seems on edge.

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.

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.

Edinburgh, Scotland gripped in the icy embrace of Cailleach Bhèara, the Hag of Winter!

Edinburgh, Scotland gripped in the icy embrace of Cailleach Bhèara, the Hag of Winter!

[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.

"tcho-klidge"

"tcho-klidge"

"tcho-klidge"

...

Still need a hint? Look at this picture:

Photo credit: me. My wife enjoying a cup of Hot...

Photo credit: me. My wife enjoying a cup of Hot...

Chocolate!

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! :)

My LEGO Rant

Whenever my wife and I are fortunate enough to walk through the air conditioned aisles of a Target (most recently on road trips between Santa Barbara and Sacramento in an attempt to lull our five-month-old to sleep) there comes a moment when Jess, without even looking at me and in her off-handed way, asks that I spare her the ritual of "my LEGO rant". Since I've subjected my family and many of my friends to this particular topic to no avail, I've now decided to unleash it upon the Internet, that rollicking sea of discursive opinion.

(The embryo of this rant already appeared in a previous post entitled "The Merest Set of Blocks" where I hold LEGOs up as an example of "life creating" play. The current post takes its departure from this idea, problematizing current trends in LEGOs and drawing out some criticisms and observations.)


Here it goes: LEGOs are a type of toy that allows the literal construction of Tolkienesque co-created worlds. Yet as I roam Target (Jess is probably meanwhile looking at patterned workout pants), I become concerned by what I see as a development in LEGOs that would seem to fundamentally limit the toy's creative power. I'm talking about the overwhelming presence of specifically marked, franchise characters and worlds. In other words, why all the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel comics?


I see these sets as a problem when I compare them with more basic, unmarked sets from the 90s: City, Space, Medieval, Pirates, etc. These older genres seem to offer the perfect balance of marked specificity and unmarked generality. They have enough connection to a widely-known and accepted, constructed world to give basic parameters for play, basic rules and norms. But at the same time the genres are loose enough to allow for the widest possible variation and manipulation.

Take for example the following, common City character: Body design (black with pockets and silver badge), face (smile with black shades), helmet (white with clear visor), and vehicle (white motorcycle with radio antennas and "police" on the side). All these things mark this figure as a police officer on a motorcycle. Certain generic rules come into play as soon as this concept is accepted: the "good guy" role, power relations to "bad guys" and "innocent City dwellers", the narrative of the "high speed pursuit", etc. But these rules can easily be bent, challenged, or otherwise problematized. Is he the hero? The sidekick? A husband? A father? A son? Happy with his job? Overworked and mentally unstable? Does he have a dark and obscure past? Does he have a criminal brother who pits family against justice? Is he a cop by day and freelance web designer by night? There's nothing to stop you from pretending that the cop is really a criminal in disguise. Or he's in a Halloween costume. Or he's a displaced cyborg from the future. Or a displaced knight from the past. It can be almost whatever you want! You could even insert him into another context; with a little imagination and the addition and subtraction of a few choice pieces he could be a Scout Trooper on a Speeder Bike. (I may or may not have done exactly that as a child...)

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

Specificity meets possibility. LEGOs and genre at their best!

Not so, I argue, with the franchise sets. Everything here is heavily marked. The "Indiana Jones" figurine isn't just any "good guy". He's Harrison Ford. He's a specific persona built upon a solid and controlled tradition of movies and books and video games. He has his own soundtrack. He has specific catch phrases, personality traits, and accouterments. He comes preloaded with certain relationships towards women, snakes, Nazis, his father, America, collegiate teaching, epistemology, mysticism, the use of force, etc. 

Similarly, whoever "Malekith the Accursed" is (I say as I walk through the LEGO aisle in Target perusing the available sets), he obviously has unique characteristics, a specific story and a point of view that puts him into relationship with other characters within his world. If one is unfamiliar with these things, there is a risk of using him "incorrectly". (A lesson I learned with certain "Ninjago" figurines while playing with my nephews.)

I'm not arguing that specificity is in and of itself negative. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others have all created rich worlds that have had a lasting effect on our culture in important ways. I'm also not saying that the mixture of genres (eg. "Indiana Jones" having tea with "Darth Vader" in a "castle" with "Iron Man" playing saxophone in the background) is impossible or undesirable or bad. The LEGO Movie in particular uses genre mixture in a particularly powerful, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque way, that reveals the need for reassessment of meta-narratives both in fantasy and reality. I am saying that the specificity of this overly-marked characterization limits the possibility inherent in LEGOs as toys. Their worlds are pre-constructed and much less open to manipulation. And this manipulation is what truly makes LEGOs great.

Co-creation vs. participation. Light generic marking vs. meta-narratives. Open vs. limited.


Obviously any rant is fraught with loopholes and problems. Perhaps I betray my ignorance of the Marvel multiverse, or my dissatisfaction with Peter Jackson's adaptation of LOTR. Perhaps I see limitations where others see potentialities. Perhaps I betray my jealousy of today's purple bricks, the pre-made "Darth Vader" helmets (I had to use the visored knight helmet for that character), the cannons that actually shoot. ("Today's youth don't know how good they have it!" says the old man.) But, also, perhaps I've touched upon something that speaks directly to the fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

What do you think?

Baby Songs

Today my daughter, Penelope, turns four months old. Many life-changing things have happened since that day — for instance I am currently writing this post with my left hand alone, a skill I've become somewhat proficient at, as my right hand is preoccupied with calming an infant whose sleep regression threatens to startle her awake.

Photo taken by sister-in-law K8 Weber at Hendry's Beach—the same beach Jess and I walked for months while Penny was cooking.

Photo taken by sister-in-law K8 Weber at Hendry's Beach—the same beach Jess and I walked for months while Penny was cooking.

Milestones like this allow the opportunity to consider the passage of time. Time with an infant is complicated, demanded, constrained, but also expanded, inverted, and even negated. (Parents will understand what I mean.) As music is a temporal art form that moves through time, it's interesting to note what being a new father has done to my perception of and dealings with music. I'll keep my musings limited to music directed at Penny, to infant music, specifically the what and the why.

What: We sing to Nelly. (Yes, she has at least three names and a variety of nicknames.) What we sing most is a variety of nonsense songs with simple, metrically regular melodies taken from just about anywhere (SpongeBob, Protestant hymns, Spice Girls, Mexican folk songs) or improvised. The words, when they make sense at all, are topical and specific to the moment ("Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! etc."). I also find delight in singing songs from a variety of sources that I have come across and enjoy for a variety of historical, linguistic, or musical reasons. True to my form, they are mostly not in English:
 

  • Italian arias like A. Scarlatti's "Già il sole dal Gange"
  • Eighteenth-century German Lieder such as Zelter's setting of Klopstock's "Das Rosenband"
  • Knipper's "Polyushke Polye"
  • Selections from Schumann's Liederalbum für die Jugend ("Frühlingsgruß" and "Schlaraffenland")
  • The medieval chant "Ave Maria"
  • French marching songs like "Au jardin du mon père"
  • Selections from Gay's The Beggar's Opera ("Oh, what pain it is to part")
  • And several Gàidhlig songs such as "'Illean bithibh sunndach," "Fear a' bhàta," and "Tha mi sgith".

Why: What is our purpose for singing to our four-month-old? Cognitive development? Language acquisition? Enculturation and socialization? There are a lot of literatures and opinions out there about what music for infants should be about, what is appropriate and what is not. As a music scholar I find it all rather daunting, and as a parent I find it downright overwhelming. So I've come to my own personal conclusion that the reason I sing to my infant daughter is simply because I enjoy it. It's fun! Singing marks the passage of time with an immediacy and vivacity that we usually don't notice in the daily humdrum of life.  Singing is about making time intentional and noting its preciousness. It pauses "ordinary time" and enters into "special time."

It's also communicative. This may seem counterintuitive; I do realize that Penny understands neither the nonsense songs, nor the foreign language songs, nor the English ones for that matter. She can't speak. But because she can't speak, it's all music at this point: melody and rhythm and consonants and vowels. And what I believe comes across through music's sheer musicality is simply a parent's affection for their child. Without words to get in the way, I believe that Nelly can somehow, on some level, be aware of my fatherly affection for her. This is why instead of singing songs that have at some point been categorized as "children's songs," I sing songs that I enjoy, like Gàidhlig folk songs or Soviet era pseudo-folk songs. I enjoy these pieces, they fill my heart with joy, and by singing those sorts of songs to my infant I practice sharing a deep part of my soul with her. In pouring forth my voice, I expose her to my vulnerability and enthusiasm and desire to connect at simple yet deep levels.

I'll end by saying that Penelope has recently begun to "vocalize;" she sings back to us. Sometimes her songs communicate specific desires or needs, but other times she seems to be singing for the sheer fun of it. At these moments she sounds like a tiny, shrieking Nazgûl, but I'm guessing something more joyful is in her heart.

One Moment to Breathe

Today a year ago my wife and I discovered that we were pregnant. Forty-some weeks after that Jess birthed our sweet, little wonder, Penelope, a healthy, feisty, strong infant with bright, blue eyes. In the three and a half months since we brought Penny home, Jess and I have been privy to a constant spectacle of discovery: smiles, car rides, lip-quivering cries of fear versus ear-splitting cries for attention. Jess and I are both more exhausted than we have ever been and we are grateful to those who have helped us and stood with us through this challenging, life-transforming time.

The Family with Penny in her (daddy's) favorite TMNT onesie. #wishihadone Photo probably by sister-in-law K8 Weber.

The Family with Penny in her (daddy's) favorite TMNT onesie. #wishihadone Photo probably by sister-in-law K8 Weber.

I am hoping to have some time this summer to write more often. Penny's arrival came at the very end of a year-long battle with COMPS, and actually overlapped with me creating and presenting a "Music Appreciation" course for a summer session at UCSB. There hasn't been much time. :)

Next time I will be continuing my coverage of my adventures in parenting by talking about music for infants. What is its purpose? What type of music is preferable?

See you then.

This Woman!

Today Jessica Roy turns thirty! That's right—this woman!

A few of my wife's more heroic, beautiful, and inspiring moments.

A few of my wife's more heroic, beautiful, and inspiring moments.

For all those of us who have known Jess, there is so much to celebrate! I count myself wildly blessed to have made her acquaintance just over ten years ago and for a decade's worth of beautiful adventures, challenging ordeals, and unexpected surprises.

I have found that much of what we try to learn in life, those important words or concepts or ideas, actually cannot be fully or even adequately understood aside from real experience. The word "friend" accrues new meaning when one experiences fierce, sensitive, and compassionate companionship. The word "laughter" is immediately contextualized by a plethora of remembered giggles, guffaws, snorts, and happily tear-stained faces. "Forgiveness" is no longer an idealized moralism, but a hard choice, a deep, heavenly breath. "Beauty" blooms in variegated hues. "Resilience" has a face and serious attitude. "Motherhood" shines in the dark night. "Conversation" seeks connection on candle-lit nights and cross-country car rides. "Love" is the curve of a smile and encircling arms. "Honesty" gracefully knocks down walls.

All these words I have experienced, I actually have lived, because of Jessica. And she continues to teach. She gives of herself richly, passionately. I can't wait to see what the next decade has in store for her and for her family which she blesses so much.

Happy Birthday, Jessica!

Buccaneer Academia

The reader of these pages should not look for detailed documentation of every word. In treating of the general problems of culture one is constantly obliged to undertake predatory incursions into provinces not sufficiently explored by the raider himself. To fill in all the gaps in my knowledge beforehand was out of the question for me. I had to write now, or not at all. And I wanted to write.

These are the concluding words of the Forward to the 1950 English translation of Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938). They jump out at me not only due to their style of writing but to their sentiment. Regardless of any purported translation deficiencies, this combination of colorful imagery, conversational style, and personal voice, all of which continue into the body of book, turn a complex sociological argument into (dare I say it?) playful literature. This is the sort of writing that makes Arthur Loesser's Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (1954) so delightful. His description of the state of Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia has an undeniable snarkiness to it.

The violence had ceased now, but generations of small, mean living were ahead. Germany was broken: irrevocably split down the middle religiously, and politically shattered into three hundred fragments. Some of these were sizable realms such as the Kingdom of Saxony or the Kingdom of Bavaria, but most were pintsized principalities—"duodecimo states" they were contemptuously called later. Some had curious names that came unscrewed in the middle, such as Schwarzburg-Sonderhausen, Oettingen-Wallerstein, or Schaumburg-Lippe. Each was headed by an absolute sovereign princelet, who owed a theoretical and ceremonial allegiance to a Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, but who in practice did pretty much as he pleased with his domain. Each strutted about, affectionately coddling his ornamental army, his hunting apparatus, and his little orchestra.
Pieter Brugel the Elder "Children's Games" (1560). Also known as "The Yard Duty's Nightmare".

Pieter Brugel the Elder "Children's Games" (1560). Also known as "The Yard Duty's Nightmare".

Going back to Huizinga's example, I also appreciate the way in which he embraces incompletion or openendedness, and highlights the tension between intellectual objectivity and the pragmatism of putting pen to paper. True, it is possible that such sentences may simply be attempts to cover up sloppy or lazy scholarship. Or it could be a simultaneous application of scholarly bravery and humility. Based on the importance of Huizinga's work for later scholars in this area, I would hazard a guess that we are here dealing with the later. The sociologist Norbert Elias also falls into this category for me, with such seminal works as The Civilizing Process (1939) painting in broad and intelligent strokes while avoiding extreme or totalizing statements or conclusions.

  • What writers and styles of writing do you admire? Why?
  • What writers and styles of writing do you dislike? Because it's too pedantic? Too familiar?
  • As I look forward to a life of academic study, I hope that I can find the proper balance between research and writing. How do you negotiate this tension? Goals? Assessments?
  • When do you consider yourself ready and what gets you to that state? Mentors? Peers? Liquid courage?

Sources:

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Hoboken: Wiley, 2000.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950.

Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women and Pianos. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.